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"Brilliant" Innovation for "Brilliant" Parts

GE Highlights 3D Printing and Sharing of Data as Its Stepping Stones to Innovating New Products

Rebecca Carnes
Design-2-Part Magazine

GE has been working in recent years to make a major push towards innovating through open collaboration, advanced manufacturing, and connected factories. Now the company is banking on the use of 3D printing as its catalyst for change.

While developing "brilliant factories" that are digitally connected and decked out with machinery embedded with sensors, GE is also focusing on developing brilliant parts, so to speak. Parts that are developed in a smart new way, with smart new technology, in a smart new factory.

The initiative centers on the sharing of information—whether that entails the sharing of the design of a part or sharing of machine data in a factory. It all comes together to improve manufacturing.

"Brilliant minds, machines, and factories (will be) seamlessly connected," said GE Global Research's Joseph Salvo, during a speech at the 2014 Solid Conference in San Francisco in May.

Having recently developed 3D printed fuel nozzles for its popular LEAP jet engines, the company announced last summer that it would invest $50 million into its Alabama plant to further develop the fuel nozzles, as well as other 3D printed components. There will be almost 20 fuel nozzles in every LEAP engine produced, thus setting the stage for high, long-term 3D printed production at the Auburn, Ala., plant. Production will ramp up quickly during the next five years, going from 1,000 fuel nozzles manufactured annually to more than 40,000 by 2020.

The 3D printed fuel nozzle was developed by CFM International, a joint company of GE and Snecma (SAFRAN) of France, and will mark the first time such a complex component is manufactured using additive technology. The LEAP engine, which will enter airline service in 2016, will power the new Airbus A320neo, Boeing 737 MAX, and COMAC (China) C919 aircraft.

By the end of 2015, the plant could have as many as ten 3D printing machines with the potential to grow to more than 50 3D printers that will occupy a third of the 300,000 square foot facility at full capacity.

"We spent years proving out this (3D printing) technology for a critical component in the heart of the engine—the combustion chamber" said Greg Morris, the general manager of additive technologies for GE Aviation, in a statement. "Now we are well positioned to apply this technology to other components in the same harsh environment which could prove to be game changing for future engine programs and designs."

The Auburn facility will have capacity to take on additional component work when new technologies are developed. All development of additive components will remain in Aviation's Additive Technology Center (ATC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is also expected to grow over 300 percent in size in the coming year.

Data is Ubiquitous

GE has pioneered what they call "brilliant factories," such as its plant near Schenectady, N.Y., where more than 10,000 installed sensors in machinery connect to a high-speed Ethernet network to monitor every aspect of the manufacturing process.

The plant manager runs the entire operation, from lights, heat, inventory, purchasing, and maintenance, from an iPad, explained Salvo at the RAPID conference. The connected factory enables a real-time stream of data from wireless sensors embedded in each product rolling off the line to monitor production in real-time and to help predict what might go wrong.

GE is using some "brilliant factory" features at its Albany, N.Y., factory making advanced Durathon batteries. The factory installed about 10,000 sensors that measure temperature, humidity, air pressure, and machine operations data.

"These machines are becoming cyber physical systems," Salvo said. "They need to do a lot of thinking on their own and in networks. And as they become more complex."

The time to build, test, and qualify these systems through traditional means is getting longer and longer and it can take up to 15 to 20 years from ideation to final roll out of a new platform, such as for DARPA projects.

"That is just too long," Salvo said. "It adds too much cost and too much uncertainty. Who wants 15-year-old electronics in your new platform? Obviously, something has got to give."

By creating a "digital thread" connecting design with production and the manufacturing supply chain, GE hopes to streamline production through open crowdsourcing, advanced manufacturing techniques like 3D printing, and connected factories that operate in the cloud and can be controlled on a mobile device.

Workers can remotely monitor production from wireless tablets, adjust conditions, and prevent malfunctions instantaneously and from anywhere, explained Christine Furstoss, global technology director for manufacturing and materials at GE, during a speech at the MD&M East conference last June.

This 'smart' factory leads to more innovative products and streamlined manufacturing, she said. And it is where a single digital thread links design, engineering, production, supply chain, and distribution, adding that manufacturing is entering a "truly disruptive time."

"Our factories need to be brilliant. They need to understand that today, power lies in data, power lies in using data to manufacture, and power lies in collecting data to understand how you're building. And then power lies in using that data to get feedback to your own machines, to your suppliers, and to your customers," Furstoss said.

In this "new world" that GE is imagining, Salvo explained, the company aims to integrate information and data to automate workflows and have the projects drive the communications.

"We are looking at billions of objects being connected to this Industrial Internet during the next few years," he said.

Where Brilliant Minds Collide

GE has recently taken steps to facilitate an open sharing or "crowdsourcing" of design ideas that will allow more people to get involved in building complex cyber-physical systems and promoting innovation of products.

The platform, called CEED (Crowdsourcing Environment for Evolutionary Design), is powered by and provides an open, virtual collaborative environment where experts and others can team up on projects and freely share, reuse, re-mix, or build on shared design sources for producing complex systems, such as military vehicles, aviation systems, and advanced medical devices.

Billed as a key building block of the emerging "Industrial Internet," this social platform on the Web would accelerate the design of highly-complex industrial systems by connecting data, design tools, and simulations in an open collaborative environment where contributors can choose to expose their ideas to the public, either as open-source or IP-protected services.

These new collaborative software architectures, designed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), are changing the manufacturing paradigm, making it "democratic," dynamic, and distributed, Salvo explained.

"New crowdsourcing platforms will enable parties with specialized knowledge to securely interact with a global community of experts on the Industrial Internet, resulting in the creation of better, more robust product designs in a much shorter period of time," Salvo said in a statement.

GE wants to reach out to all types of "brilliant minds," he said at the Solid Conference, adding that the owner of the design will be able to retain their intellectual property rights and control the information they wish to share. CEED runs off the cloud and the whole environment can be run off a smartphone or tablet.

Collaboration with a 3D Printed Contest

In an experiment with crowdsourcing, GE kicked off a series of design challenges in which they chose ten finalists to design a 3D printed jet engine bracket. There were more than 700 designs submitted to this "Quest" for an innovative new product.

GE took the design of this part it had used in its aircraft engines, produced for dozens of years by traditional methods, and posted it online for people to compete in designing a 3D printed version.

"We wanted to think differently," said Furstoss at a recent manufacturing trade show highlighted on a YouTube video.

GE received entries from participants ranging from design engineers at large companies to hobbyists at home, she said, adding that this quest represented the open and collaborative atmosphere GE hopes to foster and develop as it looks to 3D printing to help innovate new products.

"This is what the third industrial revolution is all about," she said. "There's a focus on innovation, on 3D printing, on software, and we are doing things we couldn't do before because of the sharing of ideas."

This crowdsourcing is a way to harness open innovation and allow everyone and anyone to collaborate, Salvo added.

"We were able to take out eighty-five percent of the mass of the part while maintaining the structural properties," Salvo said about the 3D printed jet engine bracket challenge. "And these were not aircraft engine specialists that were competing in this contest. So, that shows you the power of bringing more brilliant people into this design process, and we think this is going to roll out through every aspect of the design, build, and prototype phase."

Harnessing the power of crowd sourcing is essential to "disrupting" current processes and accelerating the pace of innovation, said Steve Ligouri, executive director of Global Innovation at GE. "GE's Quest program taps into the world's greatest minds to create products that bring new values to our customers and speeds the time from mind to market."

GE's latest 3D Printing Production Quest, in partnership with NineSigma, challenged participants to use additive manufacturing to produce complex parts with high precision for the healthcare industry. Participants utilized refractory metals, a capability that could transform how components are manufactured for X-ray-based medical imaging systems, such as mammography, cardiac catheterization, and computed tomography.

As the global medical imaging market is expected to reach $35.35 billion by 2019, GE envisions additive manufacturing as enabling new component designs that greatly simplify manufacturing and reduce cost, while improving image quality and diagnostic capability.

Refractory metals have high density, allowing them to very effectively block X-rays without the environmental and health hazards associated with lead, and also have very high melting temperatures, up to 6,000°F (3,400°C). They are used in X-ray systems to control the path of X-rays from the source through the patient's body, and in some components, such as X-ray source tubes, that take advantage of the high melting temperature.

Participants representing research teams from academia, start-ups, and established businesses from six countries competed in the Quest in an effort to explore new uses for 3D printing technologies in the healthcare sector. The 3D Printing Production Quest winners include Martin Leuterer, EOS GmbH, Germany; Rob Snoeijs, LayerWise Marketing, Belgium; and Bernhard Tabernig, PLANSEE SE Innovation Services, Austria.

"Through open innovation, we are able to uncover fresh perspectives from experts in new areas, accelerate the pace of innovation, and transform industries, faster. This is the beauty of harnessing the power of a global network of connected innovators from across industries," said Denys Resnick, vice president of Strategic Programs at NineSigma, in a statement.

At GE, more than 200 high-tech manufacturing technologies are used in over 80 plants around the globe to drive greater product performance, quality, and cost savings for healthcare customers, according to company representatives. Additive manufacturing is just beginning to find a place in medical imaging systems and opens up new opportunities in X-ray systems.

3D printing is not only an important, advanced manufacturing tool, but should also be an integrated tool, Furstoss added.

"We need to understand that design is not just an activity that happens at one person's computer terminal," she said. "We are looking for integrated designs where everyone is collaborating."

Manufacturing has traditionally been a "linear world," she said, explaining that people design a part, pick a material, and then figure out how to manufacture it.

"We have done that for decades—it worked and we've done it. But it's slow and you lose too much potential," Furstoss said. "That's what 3D printing has opened our eyes to. We are integrating design, materials, and manufacturing like never before and we have seen new possibilities."

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