TECHNOLOGY

Beleaguered GE seeks a 3‑dimensional fix

Second in a series. Read the first part here.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The shiny metal tube in Kurt Goodwin's hand looks like a magician's work.

A little smaller than a soda can, its thick walls are pierced by a series of holes seemingly drilled lengthwise, surrounding the center passageway. Except on second glance, the holes are uniformly curved. No drill could do that, confirms Goodwin, the leader of General Electric Co.'s $73 million advanced manufacturing center here in Greenville.

Goodwin is happy to show the piece off to a visitor, but no images, thank you. It is still proprietary.

GE made the tube with 3-D adaptive manufacturing, using a laser's intense heat to weld metal powder to form thin layers of solid metal, one atop the other, to create the complex design. It is part of the fuel assembly that delivers natural gas and massive volumes of air to burners on the business end of a GE natural gas turbine, the core product of the GE Power division.

The part is a virtual dust speck in GE's 1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility here. But it is also a prime example of an opportunity, and an imperative, for GE to keep pushing its technology forward even in the face of the heavy losses its power division has suffered.

GE Power's profits plunged 88 percent in the fourth quarter of 2017 from the same period the year before, as demand for turbines fell across the board. GE says it will take out $3.5 billion in structural costs over 2017 and 2018 to try to pull more cash from its operations.

A global manufacturing conglomerate with $122 billion in annual revenue, GE has invested $3 billion on the frontier technology of additive manufacturing, including $220 million in research and development as of last December.

Starting a decade ago with parts for its jet engines, GE has steadily expanded its 3-D capabilities, transporting them to its turbines. "We set up a production line here in 2015," said Goodwin, interviewed in the Greenville lab. "It feels like we've been full-out ever since."

GE's new chairman, John Flannery, appears to have exempted additive manufacturing from the downsizing he ordered for GE Power after taking over last year. In a conference call in January that was otherwise draped with bad news, Flannery hailed GE's invention of what he termed the world's largest laser powder additive manufacturing machine, which can produce the structural parts of jet engines.

Manufacturing parts via 3-D technologies, as a rule, can be up to four times more expensive than by traditional forgings, industry experts say, but they are faster to make and allow cost-saving designs.

As of last December, GE had shipped 25,000 3-D parts for its jet engines and power units. "Additive is positioned to break even in 2018, and we believe there is a tremendous potential here," Flannery said. "Our additive capabilities are truly game changing."

But the race is on. GE's foremost rival, Germany's Siemens AG, sees it just the same way. Tim Holt, CEO of Siemens Power Generation Services division, told an Energy Department technology conference Wednesday, "For us, it is a technology that can change the way we do business."

Siemens has more than 100,000 turbines of all kinds around the world, some more than 50 years old, that require a constant supply of spare parts to keep running, Holt said. Instead of keeping a $1 billion inventory, 3-D printing may allow parts to be supplied on order — particularly if performance sensors on the turbines can alert Siemens when a part will be needed, he said.

Whether GE's technology will move fast enough in a cost-cutting environment hangs over the company now. As a U.S. standard-bearer in the global competition for manufacturing leadership, GE's future has a powerful symbolic importance as well as its meaning for 300,000 employees and many millions of shareholders.

It doesn't have much choice but to keep pushing, according to an analysis of the U.S. manufacturing sector by McKinsey Global Institute's research study, "Making it in America: Revitalizing U.S. Manufacturing."

Takeoff point

Technologies available to manufacturers are at a new takeoff point, with advances in 3-D printing, collaborative robots, higher-power design tools and artificial intelligence, for example, backed by ever higher levels of computing power, the institute's report notes.

"You're seeing these companies being able to deploy technologies both to be able to speed up their design and get to market faster, but also to be able to do it in an efficient way," said McKinsey Global Institute partner Sree Ramaswamy.

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While Ramaswamy did not direct comments specifically at GE's challenge, he said it's clear that U.S. manufacturers cannot jump off the train and hope to catch up later.

"You have to have that long-term mindset, to say, 'I'm going to place bets on a bunch of these things. I'm going to watch which ones are going, and I'm going to invest heavily at scale behind that,'" he said in an interview. "The organization has to go through a learning curve to get there.

"You can't just buy these things off the shelf and plug them in," he said.

Sum of its parts

GE's 3-D manufacturing started in its jet engine business. There, engineers working on a new fuel nozzle wanted ways to change the inside of the part.

"They had a young guy who said, 'If I can make the part exactly the way I want to draw it, I could solve this problem,'" Goodwin said. Three-dimensional printing made that possible.

The temperatures inside GE turbines pass 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt the nozzles unless the parts are cooled, in this case by air. The best way to do that: "Get small, intricate passageways built into the parts themselves," Goodwin says. "If you put a whole bunch of small tubes in there, you don't have to push as much air through." Three-dimensional printing does that. Curving the air passageways, in the part Goodwin showed off, improves efficiency of the air flow, he explained.

The particular technology GE uses for parts like that really involves welding, not what could be thought of as printing.

A plan to construct a 3-D part in this example is created by subdividing it into many ultrathin horizontal sections, starting at the bottom. Three-dimensional images of each section are converted into software and loaded into a computer, which will control laser welding guns.

"You slice it up into layers, about 40-50 microns thick" — roughly half the dimension of a human hair, Goodwin said. "What that becomes is essentially a stack of layers of metal that you'd, like, have in the final part."

Fine metal particles are spread over a metal plate that provides a foundation for the part. The laser goes to work, welding metal powder to the base according to the design instructions. More metal powder is spread and another layer is welded to the one below and it continues, one layer after another.

"We've had lasers for years; we've had computers for years; we've had welding for centuries; why is it suddenly working now?" Goodwin said. "Two of the reasons are, if you were to go back 20 years, the lasers that were around were just not affordable and robust enough to be used as we are using them. And the computers around 20 years ago just weren't fast enough to drive the models we see today.

"You can already see, the machines we're using today are twice as productive as they were when we started," Goodwin said. Some of that is better machines, but experience has mattered a lot, too, with better understanding of the materials and how to manage lasers, he said.

It is an illustration of the McKinsey Global Institute's point — the progress is often incremental, but it compounds.

"Some of the parts we're making for ourselves and for aviation, you can't make any other way," said Eric Gebhardt, GE Power's strategic technology officer. "The complexity inside can't be machined, can't be manufactured. It has to be 3-D."

"We're working to do more complex parts," he adds. "It's a viability threshold based on cost. As costs continue to come down and speed continues to go up, more and more parts become viable."

Three-dimensional parts are also helping GE try to tune its gas turbines to team up with wind and solar power, enabling the units to work at lower speeds, then react to a sudden drop in renewable energy, said John Lammas, vice president and chief technology officer for GE's gas power systems.

'Complexity is free'

Inside GE's combustion laboratory in Greenville, lab leader Dan Behal shows off a redesigned burner assembly that takes advantage of 3-D parts. This too cannot be photographed.

With huge volumes of air rushing past the burner, managing the air and fuel mix during ignition is like trying to light a barbecue in a hurricane, said John Intile, GE Power executive engineering manager.

With 3-D printing, a designer can draw up a part to manage that challenge, have it printed and get it into the lab in a week. "Then we can run it. If you had to cast it, it might take eight months to get the first part," Behal said.

"What's great about additive manufacturing is, complexity is free," said Gebhardt. "It will cost the same to 3-D print a square block as a very complex shape. There's a lot more to come."

GE has also pinned its comeback story to servicing customers' older units.

"We've got a very big installed base in Power," GE Chief Financial Officer Jamie Miller told analysts last month. "We expect those units to be utilized well out into the future," and that creates a continuing opportunity for parts and service.

Will GE find itself on a tightrope, suspended between long-term research and the short-term returns financial markets are clamoring for?

"The returns on capital investment, they're not going to show up in one quarter, one year — or even three to five years. Sometimes they take seven to 10 years," said McKinsey Global Institute's Ramaswamy. "The organization has to go through a learning curve to get there."

If there's an environment where the companies feel like they have to respond to short-term pressures, whether justified or not, their behavior will follow, he added.

"These are basically innovation industries — both turbines and wind," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, speaking of two of GE's core businesses. "There is a real risk of falling into a downward cycle in these industries.

"The risk is, if you have to take a hiatus, and conserve cash, you don't keep ahead as much as you need to, and your competitors catch up. I'm not saying that's what's going to happen," Atkinson said of GE. "But it's a risk.

"You have to be able to constantly innovate," he said.

Twitter: @PeteBehrEENews Email: pbehr@eenews.net

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