GE Additive on taking additive manufacturing from discovery to industrialisation

I spent some of this year’s Formnext event in the same way I spent the previous. Tuesday morning, I was back on the GE Additive booth, a year on from the shipping announcement for M Line Factory additive manufacturing platform, having afternoon tea for the second time with Christine Furstoss, the company’s Chief Technology Officer.

In our previous conversation, which spanned production, factories of the future and the growing importance of software, Furstoss suggested additive manufacturing, long considered, even by GE itself, to be a “revolution“, may be better positioned as a “revelation”. 12 months on, GE has announced its first Binder Jet customers, inaugurated new facilities, and just last week, launched two new metal 3D printing systems. With all of this change, I was keen to get Furstoss’ thoughts on how that revelation phase has played out for one of additive’s biggest players and users.

“It’s going from that discovery phase to that industrialisation phase and that’s really been our focus for the past year,” Furstoss tells TCT. “Understanding how do customers build their business cases with additive? What do they need to be able to achieve? What pain points in their current business plans are they addressing? Is it more distributed manufacturing? Being able to have a more streamlined supply chain? Our focus has very much been around understanding those customer cases as an industry and understanding what’s needed by our machines. For us, the revelation has been around, really what it takes within the actual machines and our materials, our designs and our software, to be able to aid the customers on that journey.”

Starting with software, one of the five announcements (not including two customer stories published the very same day) that GE made at the Frankfurt event included the launch of a new Arcam EBM Build Performance Analyzer which collects data during the build process from sensors to provide machine health analytics to inform decisions and future development. The foundation for that expertise comes from both GE’s growing team of software experts and the acquisition of GeonX back in 2017, which Furstoss says gave the company a solid understanding of what really happens to a material’s properties when you point a laser or electron beam at it.

“There’s been a huge dependence on experience and knowing so much about the materials,” Furstoss says. “Our customers want to move fast. They want to be able to use different materials. They are experts in designing their part. They need to know about additive manufacturing, but we want to bring our expertise,” Furstoss says. “In some ways, [software was] kind of a missing link. For me, it’s an accelerator. It’s really an accelerator for adoption, because if they can focus on their use of the component, we can help them on the manufacturing journey.”

The last of the Arcam EBM family to receive this new software tool will be the Spectra, including the Spectra L, which made its debut last week. It builds on the high-temperature Spectra H launched last year but with double the build volume (430mm height with a 350 mm diameter) and fine-tuned features for lower temperature materials like copper, coupled with improvements to the laser and powder spreading to increase productivity by 20%. The intent is to bring more robustness to the electron beam process.

“We worked on everything from the actual electron beam generation to how we spread the powder,” Furstoss explains. “A big part of this has been understanding how we manage heat in the system. It is a vacuum so it’s very different and we want to make sure the part stays uniformly hot at the right temperature. The Spectra L is focused on productivity for our customers but also on utilising materials that are very, very hard typically to consolidate.”

My eyes were drawn to the shiny copper samples dotted around the booth including a complex heat exchanger and a thin, organic-looking part that inspired a few incorrect guesses as to its purpose (Medical model? Bracelet? Shoe lace? Anyone else?). Furstoss revealed it was in fact a connector for an electrical system for which this printed copper, currently a development materials, is an ideal solution in the case of structural or functional components that don’t require a high level of surface finish. This is due to EBM’s vacuum environment which minimises the oxygen pick-up in copper to allow for conductive parts, while, compared to a red laser beam, pure copper can absorb up to 80% of the energy from an electron beam.

Also new was a highly-alloyed tool steel, previously unsuitable for AM due to its tendency to crack under high temperatures but now available for printing on the Spectra H. It’s a super tough material, so tough in fact, it was used to build a milling cutter tool.

The second piece of hardware came from the Concept Laser side of GE’s portfolio, acquired in that industry affirming $1.4 billion deal back in 2016. The Concept Laser M2 Series 5 has been developed and put through its paces by GE Aviation which has helped engineers to prioritise areas where the direct metal laser sintering system could be improved upon. But despite the family ties, they’re no easy customer.

“You’re toughest on your family,” Furstoss jokes, regarding the challenging parts their neighbouring Cincinnati team often throws at them. “GE Aviation, they have some very tough parts and being able to have them really as an internal voice of the customer, saying “I want to be able to calibrate it faster” or “I want to be able to load parts faster” has been a huge help for us, to have someone who could tell us this is what I love, this is what I want you to do better.”

Attention has been paid to how the M2 lasers work together across the entirety of the build plate and understanding how spot size affects the build outcome, tested with hundreds of parts to explore where specifications needed to be tightened for repeatability. Furstoss explained how the team went through the M2 piece by piece, down to the gas flow and optical cooling, to deliver predictability from one machine to the next.

“Additive is still maturing. We’re all still learning,” Furstoss adds. “Customers are designing some parts that are pretty tough to make but we want to make sure that they can predict what’s going to come out of the machine – from day one to day two, machine one to machine two, they come out repeatable. Just looking at all of the factors; the laser itself, the optical system that moves the laser around, the gases that flow to make sure that it’s always a clean surface for the laser to be working on, just really understood what it took for industrialisation and running it days and weeks at a time.”

Industrialisation is a key word and a prominent one throughout the many conversations that materialised on the show floor last week. Many vendors were exploring the jump to production with smart automation demos, new software solutions addressing simulation and predictability, and advanced materials that are opening up new applications in true manufacturing. For GE Additive, Furstoss says, it’s about that entire ecosystem.

“It’s not just the machine. It’s not just the material. They’re all important,” Furstoss said. “We’re also, if you will, a super user. We talked about GE Aviation, but there’s also GE Power GE Healthcare. It’s being able to have the experience of designing and then using. Having the ability, because of our powder production with a APAC, as well as our machine production and design, to be able to understand where we’re going to have to make trade-offs – nothing is going to fit every need. Everything in life has trade-offs, and really understanding whether it’s from a cost, a throughput, a feature, being able to walk our customers through that but then also as we look at different industries, understand the trends and design our materials and machines to meet those trends.”

It’s happening outside of GE’s network too. Metal additive manufacturer Sintavia has three GE Additive machines at its new production facility in Florida where it is “right at the tipping point, of making not 20 or 30 part numbers, but hundreds if not thousands of part numbers.” VDM Components, a customer since 2014, is employing GE’s EBM technology to work with high strength, heat and wear resistant materials. Let’s also not forget a little-known fashion project in collaboration with Protolabs for this year’s Met Gala.

In addition to those bigger players, SMEs are equally important. Furstoss says GE is building relationships with universities and research organisations such as America Makes and Oak Ridge National Labs in the U.S., the latter of which it has signed a five-year cooperative research and development agreement to focus on processes, materials and software, to connect with those smaller companies who may not be ready to invest in a high-end machine. Those collaborations, as we’re increasingly seeing in the industry, are important for not only those smaller companies but GE Additive’s growth too.

“We understand that there are different levels of deep knowledge and we don’t have to know everything,” Furstoss says. “We can work with these collaborators, really leverage what they know about some deep physics of an electron beam or a laser and, at the same time, be side by side with an SME to understand, what do they need?

“It’s really a great way to drive industrialisation.”

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