GE Beefing Up 3-D Printing Muscle Via Open Engineering "Contests"

BA is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

General Electric (NYSE: GE) is calling on those in the maker community to put their imaginations to work and help it expand the boundaries of what is 3-D printable.

On Tuesday, GE announced at the RAPID 2013 Conference that it's launching two 3-D printing "quests." The first is a 3-D Printing Design Quest for an aircraft engine bracket. The other is a 3-D Printing Production Quest for complex and high-precision parts, with potential applications in healthcare. The first quest is open to all, including individuals. The second quest is aimed at 3-D printing fabricators.  

GE's beefing up 3-D printing muscle to trim costs

Many industries, namely aerospace and healthcare, are increasingly adopting 3-D printing to drive down costs. 

GE, for instance, has said that it's decreased costs up to 25% on some components by using "additive manufacturing," or 3-D printing, rather than conventional "subtractive manufacturing" methods. This magnitude of cost savings will be separating winners from losers in certain industries. That's why investors in many traditional industries should pay some attention to 3-D printing even if they don't give a whit about the 3-D printer manufacturers. 

GE reportedly got a later start in using 3-D printing technology than did Boeing, but has been going gangbusters recently playing catch-up. GE is now the world’s largest user of 3-D printing technologies in metals. And its November 2012 purchase of the assets of privately-held Morris Technologies and its sister company, Rapid Quality Manufacturing, gave it a full-scale 3-D production facility in Cincinnati, Ohio, near GE Aviation's Evendale, Ohio, headquarters.   

These "quests" are a great way for GE to further strengthen its 3-D printing might. In addition to GE likely receiving some winning design ideas, it will also broaden its pool of potential suppliers and employees. In fact, a specific objective of the second quest is to "broaden GE's supplier network of high-end fabricators with sophisticated production capabilities." Dangling $50,000 (for up to three winners) in front of 3-D fabricators around the globe, while giving them an opportunity to "audition" as a GE supplier seems an effective way to accomplish this objective.  

All this begs the questions: Which companies' machines are cranking out all those GE widgets? And what's the industrial metals 3-D printing landscape look like? 

Major industrial metals 3-D printing technologies and the players 

First, a cheat sheet:

<table> <tbody> <tr> <td><strong>Technology</strong></td> <td><strong>Manufacturer(s) </strong></td> </tr> <tr> <td>Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)</td> <td><strong>EOS,</strong> Germany (privately-held)</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Selective Laser Melting (SLM)</td> <td> <p><strong>Renishaw</strong>, U.K. (listed on London Stock  Exchange)</p> <p><strong>SLM Solutions</strong>, Germany (private) </p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td>Electron Beam Melting (EBM)</td> <td><strong>Arcam, </strong>Sweden (NASDAQ OMX Stockholm)                      </td> </tr> <tr> <td>LaserCUSING</td> <td><strong>Concept Laser, </strong>Germany </td> </tr> <tr> <td>Digital Part Materialization (DPM), or what the ASTM might consider binder jetting</td> <td><strong>The ExOne Company</strong> <span data-id="284585"><span class="ticker" data-id="284585">(NASDAQ: <a href="http://caps.fool.com/Ticker/XONE.aspx">XONE</a>)</span></span></td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

This table is not all-inconclusive. It's just meant to be a decent summary of the major technologies and manufacturers. 

The companies acquired by GE, Morris Technologies and RQM, have specialized in using DMLS technology. However, they do have at least one EBM machine. 

There are benefits and drawbacks to each technology, so they shouldn't all be considered competitors. 

For instance, the first three have titanium capabilities, while ExOne does not. However, ExOne is reportedly working on this. (ExOne's metal capabilities are bronze, 316 Stainless Steel/Bronze, and 420 Stainless Steel/Bronze.) Titanium is a key aerospace industry metal, as it's used for airframes and engine parts. Its uses stem from its very high strength to weight ratio, and good corrosion and fracture-related properties. 

On the other hand, Arcam's machines have titanium, several titanium alloys, and a cobalt-chrome alloy (used in orthopedic implants) capabilities, but none of the metal (or other materials, for that matter) capabilities of ExOne's machines. 

A Morris Technologies presentation compares DMLS and EBM technologies when using Ti64, the most commonly used titanium alloy. The conclusion: DMLS is best for complex geometries with internal features or passages. EBM is a good choice for bulky complex solid geometries or extremely delicate shapes, especially for production (as opposed to prototypes) due to fast build rates. 

The presentation notes the future of metal additive manufacturing will include bigger build envelopes (ExOne has the largest 3-D printers, according to the company), medium to high volume production (Arcam's EBM ranks high here), and micro laser sintering, or MLS, for detail (EOS has developed a MLS technology). 

Takeaways 

There's little doubt that 3-D printing will be a major disruptive technology. The industry is expected to grow at a 25+% annual clip for the next six or more years. 

Potential winners aren't limited to the 3-D printing manufacturers. Companies in various manufacturing industries, such as aerospace, that are aggressive adopters of 3-D printing will benefit from component parts costs savings. Some will also likely benefit from increased innovation as 3-D printing allows for much faster prototyping, thus shortening the new product concept-through-production time frame.

Remember, there's also the acquisition possibilities. 3D Systems is the Pac-Man of the industry, gobbling up companies at a frenetic pace. So, look to it to complement its offering by acquiring one or more 3-D printers focused on higher-end industrial metals. 

For GE, the recent financial crisis struck a blow, but management took advantage of the market's dip to make strategic bets in energy. If you're a GE investor, you need to understand how these bets could drive this company to become the world's infrastructure leader. At the same time, you need to be aware of the threats to GE's portfolio. To help, we're offering comprehensive coverage for investors in a premium report on General Electric, in which our industrials analyst breaks down GE's multiple businesses. You'll find reasons to buy or sell GE today. To get started, click here now.


BA McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends The ExOne Company. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

blog comments powered by Disqus