The evolution of AM at GE: On the acquisition trail as the focus turns to technology supply
With the announcement of GE’s planned acquisitions of metal AM machine producers Arcam and SLM Solutions, the company is making a bold move to not only enhance its already significant AM expertise but also to position itself as a leading supplier of AM technology to the wider industry. This ties in closely with GE’s ambitions to evolve into the world’s leading ‘digital industrial company.’ Metal AM magazine’s Nick Williams reports on the recent developments at GE and the milestones that led to this point. [First published in Metal AM Vol. 2 No. 3, Autumn 2016 | 15 minute read | View on Issuu | Download PDF]
On September 6, 2016, GE announced plans to acquire two leading suppliers of Additive Manufacturing equipment, Sweden’s Arcam AB and Germany’s SLM Solutions Group AG, for $1.4 billion. This news came as a surprise to the majority of those in the AM industry and served to boldy reinforce GE’s previously stated ambitions in the Additive Manufacturing sector. The planned acquisition of Arcam and SLM Solutions would significantly bolster GE’s already impressive material science and Additive Manufacturing capabilities. The company had invested approximately $1.5 billion in manufacturing and additive technologies since 2010, enabling it to develop additive applications across six of its business areas, create new services applications across the company and earn more than 300 patents in the area of powder metals alone.
Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, stated when announcing the proposed Arcam/SLM acquisition, “Additive Manufacturing is a key part of GE’s evolution into a digital industrial company. We are creating a more productive world with our innovative world-class machines, materials and software. We are poised to not only benefit from this movement as a customer, but spearhead it as a leading supplier. Additive Manufacturing will drive new levels of productivity for GE, our customers, including a wide array of Additive Manufacturing customers, and for the industrial world.” Should the deals go through, GE expects to grow the new additive business to $1 billion by 2020 at attractive returns and also expects $3 to $5 billion of product cost-out across the company over the next ten years . At the time of publishing, the acceptance deadlines for the SLM Solutions and Arcam acquisitions were October 24 and November 1 respectively.
Should the deals go ahead, both Arcam and SLM Solutions would report to David Joyce, President and CEO of GE Aviation, who would lead the growth of these businesses in the AM equipment and services industry, as well as leading the integration effort and the GE Store initiative to drive Additive Manufacturing applications across GE.
In addition to supporting the growing use of AM components within GE’s businesses and positioning GE as a major supplier of AM production technologies, the planned acquisitions would also allow GE to leverage its Predix platform for the industrial internet. Any AM equipment portfolio that can be acquired would form part of GE’s Brilliant Factory initiative, which aims to help manufacturers increase production efficiency, execution and optimisation through advanced real-time analytics. This technology, it was stated, will enable all manufacturers to realise GE’s Brilliant Factory vision.
“We chose these two companies for a reason,” explained Joyce. “We love the technologies and leadership of Arcam AB and SLM Solutions. They each bring two different, complementary additive technology modalities as individual anchors for a new GE additive equipment business to be plugged into GE’s resources and experience as leading practitioners of Additive Manufacturing. Over time, we plan to extend the line of Additive Manufacturing equipment and products.”
The additive effort will utilise GE’s global ecosystem but will be centred in Europe. GE will maintain the headquarters locations and key operating locations of Arcam and SLM Solutions, as well as retain their management teams and employees. These locations, it was stated, will collaborate with the broader GE additive ecosystem including the manufacturing and materials research centre in Niskayuna, New York, and the additive design and production lab in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
GE’s initial targets
Arcam AB, based in Mölndal, Sweden, invented the Electron Beam Melting (EBM) machine for metal Additive Manufacturing. Its customers are predominantly in the aerospace and healthcare industries and in 2015 the company generated $68 million in revenues with approximately 285 employees. The company’s most widely used machines are the Q10 and the Q20 (Fig. 2), with the current generations of both of these machines marketed with the ‘plus’ designation. The systems are targeted at the orthopaedic and aerospace sectors respectively, with the Q20plus offering a larger build area that is better suited to turbine blades and structural airframe components, for example.
Arcam stated that its Board of Directors had unanimously recommended that the company’s shareholders accept the offer made by GE. The initial offer valued Arcam’s ordinary shares at SEK 285 per share, corresponding to a total offer value of SEK 5,855,776,725 (US $686,322,797).In terms of Arcam’s long-term prospects, the company believes that the demand for its technology for the AM of aerospace and orthopaedic implants will increase dramatically. However, in assessing the merits of GE’s offer, the board stated that the company had limited resources and that it operated in a demanding and highly regulated environment with long lead times. Furthermore, Arcam’s board commented that the market for AM was still ‘rather immature’ and could be subject to technological leaps that would require substantial investments in order to deliver on its business plan .
GE stated that Arcam’s strategy and products aligned closely to its vision of building its own expertise and capabilities in AM to serve customers in the global industrial community. GE added that it had the resources needed in order to implement and take advantage of Arcam’s growth and business opportunities and that it would provide the know-how and expertise to further leverage the company’s technology ‘to forcefully go to market with Arcam’s products and services’ .
Advanced Powders and Coatings, Inc. (AP&C)
In addition to EBM machine production, Arcam also operates Advanced Powders and Coatings, Inc., a specialist metal powder producer based in Montreal, Canada, as well as DiSanto Technology, a medical Additive Manufacturing firm in Connecticut, USA.
AP&C is of particular interest as it would give GE specific expertise in metal powder production for AM and related powder-based part production technologies such as Metal Injection Moulding. AP&C, which was acquired by Arcam in February 2014 , uses proprietary plasma atomisation technology to produce highly spherical powders of reactive and high melting point materials such as titanium, nickel, zirconium, molybdenum, niobium, tantalum, tungsten and their alloys. Since the announcement of the proposed acquisition of Arcam by GE, AP&C has revealed that it is planning to invest up to CAD $31 million in a second metal powder production facility that will see the creation of more than 100 new jobs, more than doubling the firm’s workforce over the next three years.
Alain Dupont, President of AP&C, stated at the time of the new plant’s ground-breaking ceremony, “This investment makes it possible to provide our existing and future clients with superior quality powders to meet the high manufacturing standards of the aerospace and orthopaedic industries. With this new powder production facility and advances in atomisation technology, AP&C will significantly increase capacity” .
SLM Solutions Group AG
SLM Solutions Group, based in Lübeck, Germany, produces laser-based machines for metal Additive Manufacturing with customers in the aerospace, energy, healthcare and automotive industries. The company generated $74 million in revenues in 2015 with 260 employees. In addition to its operations in Germany, SLM has sales and application sites worldwide. Should the proposed acquisition go ahead, GE stated that it would maintain the headquarters and key operating locations of SLM Solutions, as well as retaining the management team and employees.
Hans-Joachim Ihde, founder and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of SLM Solutions Group AG at the time of the announcement of the proposed acquisition, stated, “General Electric has already accompanied us as a user and customer since our inception. They assumed a pioneering role in aerospace technology and were early to identify the benefits of Selective Laser Melting, for example in terms of savings in the weight of components. They are entirely familiar with SLM Solutions’ multi-laser technology and its advantages vis-a-vis our competitors” .
SLM Solutions’ flagship system is the SLM®500HL (Fig. 3), which provides a large build envelope of 500 x 280 x 365 mm and features the company’s patented multi-beam technology. In the high-performance SLM®500HL machine, four fibre lasers (4 x 400 W) operate simultaneously, increasing the build-up rate by up to 90% compared with a twin laser configuration (2 x 400 W). The system has fully automated powder management located between the SLM system and the sieving station in which the metal powder is continually sieved and fed to the building process. This eliminates the time-consuming manual filling of the system. Tasks such as the cleaning of the cylinder and the removal of components are performed in a separate unpacking unit, enabling the next build job to be started in parallel using a second construction cylinder.
As with Arcam, SLM Solutions Group also has interests in metal powder production for Additive Manufacturing. In February 2016 the company entered into a cooperation venture with PKM Future Holding GmbH to manufacture AM-grade metal powders. PKM is the main shareholder of TLS Technik GmbH & Co Spezialpulver KG, a manufacturer of gas atomised metal powders in Bitterfeld, Germany .
The venture, in which SLM Solutions is reported to have a 51% stake, focuses on the development, production and distribution of aluminium alloys for AM systems. At the time of the announcement it was estimated that more than 100 tonnes of aluminium powder would be produced annually for Additive Manufacturing purposes. It was also stated that the production of further materials may commence at a later point. The expansion of SLM Solutions’ metal powder business was seen as helping to overcome the ‘strong seasonality’ of the company’s machine system business whilst also recognising that extremely attractive margins can be achieved through developing and marketing metal powders.
GE’s key previous AM related acquisitions
In November 2012 GE Aviation acquired the assets of Morris Technologies and its sister company Rapid Quality Manufacturing (RQM), both based in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. With these acquisitions, GE sent the international community a clear signal of intent with regards to its ambitions for AM technology .
Founded by Greg Morris, Wendell Morris and Bill Noack in 1994, Morris Technologies and RQM had supplied parts to GE Aviation for a number of years, as well as to GE Power Systems and GE’s Global Research Center. Early commercial applications included lightweight parts for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the US military as well as medical applications. The companies were also contracted by GE Aviation to produce components for the best-selling LEAP jet engine.
Whilst the acquisition of Morris Technologies was regarded as an effective route to secure AM capacity and expertise, the planned acquisitions of Arcam and SLM Solutions can been seen as more strategic in nature, not only bolstering GE’s capability for the in-house development of AM applications, but also placing the company at the forefront of the development and supply of AM equipment, expertise and materials to industrial markets worldwide.
In August 2013 GE completed the acquisition of the aviation business of Avio S.p.A., a leading Italian provider of civil and military aviation components and systems. The purchase price of $4.3 billion did not include Avio’s space unit. Avio’s aviation business was renamed Avio Aero, a GE Aviation business .
This acquisition furthered GE’s participation and expertise in the areas of mechanical transmission systems, low-pressure turbines, combustion technology and automation systems. Avio Aero was also a leading manufacturer of AM aerospace components using both EBM and laser-based powder bed technologies and it has specific expertise in applications such as turbine blades. The company also developed metal powders specifically for its AM processes. Today Avio Aero has more than 4,600 employees worldwide, around 4,000 of whom are based in Italy.
In December 2015 Avio Aero ordered ten Arcam EBM systems for the production of state of the art turbine blades, doubling the company’s EBM machine capacity . At the time of the purchase, Giacomo Vessia, Plant Leader at Avio Aero, stated, “These machines will be vital to move to series production of turbine blades. Arcam is the leading supplier of titanium alloy Additive Manufacturing systems and we again turned to them with confidence, having used their products for years.” This was the largest single order for Arcam EBM systems to-date, confirming the value to GE of Arcam’s EBM technology as a volume production system for the aerospace industry.
GE’s AM application milestones in the aviation industry
It is widely recognised that applications for AM in the aviation sector offer huge potential in terms of weight saving, enhanced component functionality through previously unimaginable design complexity, as well as the ability to simplify production by merging what would have been an assembly of multiple components into a single item. Furthermore, the use of AM in this sector, where the technology is applied to critical high performance components, has caught the public’s imagination and GE has been extremely successful in maximising its much deserved exposure in the media – exposure from which the industry as a whole has benefitted.
T25 sensor housing
In February 2015 GE received FAA Certification for its T25 sensor housing, GE Aviation’s first AM part and one that is used in the GE90 engine (Fig. 5). The part was first used in flight in April 2015. The upgraded T25 sensor, located in the inlet to the high pressure compressor, was retrofitted into more than 400 GE90-94B engines in service. The T25 sensor provides pressure and temperature measurements for the engine’s control system .
“Additive Manufacturing has allowed GE engineers to quickly change the geometry through rapid prototyping and producing production parts, saving months of traditional cycle time for the T25 sensor housing without impacting the sensor’s capabilities, ”stated Bill Millhaem, General Manager of the GE90/GE9X engine program at GE Aviation at the time of the announcement.
It would normally take GE several years to design and prototype such a part, but the GE team was able to shave as much as a year from the process. “The 3D printer allowed us to rapidly prototype the part, find the best design and move it quickly to production,” added Millhaem. “We could never do this using the traditional casting process, which is how the housing is typically made.”
Fuel nozzles for the LEAP engine
In July this year GE Aviation introduced into airline service its first additively manufactured jet engine component, a fuel nozzle with extremely complex interior features, for the LEAP engine (Fig. 6). The LEAP engine is the new, best-selling engine from CFM International, a 50/50 joint company of GE and Safran Aircraft Engines of France.
Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines was the first airline to take delivery of the Airbus A320neo powered by CFM International’s LEAP-1A engines. Airbus had selected the LEAP-1A as an option for the A320neo in 2010 and the engine flew for the first time on the A320neo on May 19, 2015. The LEAP-powered A320neo received its Type Certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on May 31, 2016 [12, 13].
In addition to featuring a combustor that uses the new AM fuel nozzles, the LEAP-1A, which powers the Airbus A319neo, A320neo and the A321neo aircraft, features some of the industry’s most advanced technologies. These include 3D woven carbon fibre composite fan blades and fan case, a unique debris rejection system, 4th generation three dimensional aerodynamic designs, ceramic matrix composite shrouds in the high-pressure turbine and titanium aluminide (Ti-Al) blades in the low-pressure turbine. The engine will provide operators with double-digit improvements in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.
More than 11,000 LEAP engines are on order with up to 20 fuel nozzles in each engine. This, states GE, sets the stage for sustainably high and long-term additive production at GE Aviation’s Auburn, Alabama, manufacturing plant. Production will ramp up to more than 40,000 fuel nozzles using Additive Manufacturing by 2020.
Commenting on the LEAP project in July 2014, Greg Morris, General Manager, Additive Technologies at GE stated, “We spent years proving out this technology for a critical component in the heart of the engine, the combustion chamber. 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” .
CATA: GE’s new $39 million AM centre
In April 2016 GE opened its new Center for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA) near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, with the aim to drive innovation and the implementation of Additive Manufacturing across the company (Figs. 7-9) . The centre will focus on developing and implementing industrial Additive Manufacturing applications from which all GE businesses and customers will benefit.
The new facility represents a $39 million investment over three years and will initially result in the creation of fifty engineering jobs in disciplines ranging from mechanical and electrical to systems and software engineering. The site is designed as an innovation hub, offering training and development in both design and applications.
Commenting at the time of the centre’s opening, Philippe Cochet, GE’s Chief Productivity Officer, stated, “Today’s opening is strong evidence that GE is leading the digital transformation of industry, starting with a hub for the advancement of Additive Manufacturing techniques. The application of insights from digital connectivity in collaboration with intelligent devices will elevate the skills of our workforce, streamline productivity and enhance product development overall. This represents a new era of manufacturing.”
The new facility reflects GE’s belief that the intersection of technology and manufacturing – marrying hardware with software – will change the way industry creates, iterates and services products. In line with GE’s Brilliant Factory concept, CATA will combine lean manufacturing and optimal productivity with advanced software analytics to improve capabilities and usage of Additive Manufacturing across GE while advancing materials sciences and inspection technologies.
GE stated that CATA will contribute to the global exchange of knowledge, technology and tools across the company and, as a multimodal facility, will contribute advances to a number of our industrial businesses including aviation, transportation, power and oil and gas.
AM beyond aerospace: GE’s oil and gas plant in Talamona
Whilst the aerospace industry has to some extent become a flag bearer for the capabilities of Additive Manufacturing, the technology is succeeding in finding commercial applications in a wide range of other industries, including many in which GE has business activities. The oil and gas sector is one notable example and in May 2016 GE inaugurated a new AM component production line at the GE Oil & Gas plant in Talamona, Italy . The line uses laser-based systems to additively manufacture end burners for gas turbine combustion chambers.
GE Oil & Gas states that it is pioneering the industry’s foray into Additive Manufacturing, which offers increased speed and accuracy in component production. The company commented that AM technology ‘represents the next frontier’ for energy manufacturing. After extensive validation of AM during prototyping of the NovaLT16 gas turbine, GE decided to move the technology into full production, leveraging the design enhancement capabilities, cycle time reduction and improved product quality.
GE Oil & Gas opened an Additive Manufacturing laboratory in Florence, Italy, in 2013 with the installation of a laser-based powder bed AM machine. Since then, the laboratory has increased its capabilities thanks to the addition of two further machines for the development of turbomachinery components and special alloys. Collaborations with GE Aviation and GE Global Research Centre have significantly accelerated the development of the technology within GE.
“The opportunities for the application of Additive Manufacturing and 3D printing in the oil and gas industry are only just starting to be explored and it will require an ongoing rethink of component design and production approach,” stated Massimiliano Cecconi, GE Oil & Gas Materials & Manufacturing Technologies Executive at the time of the plant’s inauguration. “GE Oil & Gas is fostering the development of this technology to produce complex components for gas turbines, while cutting costs, boosting performance and reducing emissions.”
Whilst this overview presents some of GE’s activities in metal AM, it by no means presents the complete picture of how deeply the technology is being integrated into the company’s businesses. GE has of course been investing and growing its work in Additive Manufacturing for many years at R&D sites across Asia, North America and Europe. What is clear, however, is that GE sees AM as far more than a technology with which to simply produce cutting edge components for its own business groups. The planned acquisitions of leading AM machine manufacturers, be it SLM Solutions and Arcam as initially planned or alternative firms, would position GE to become a leading supplier of AM production technologies and ties in closely with its ambitions to evolve into a ‘digital industrial company.’
As Immelt stated at the time of the Arcam and SLM Solutions announcement, “GE’s aspirations in additive fits our long-term business model. We have world-class industrial businesses that leverage systems integration, material sciences, services and Predix. We want all of our businesses to leverage the GE Store, promote digital differentiation and drive productivity for GE and our customers. We are excited about the opportunity” .
From Arcam, SLM Solutions and AP&C there has also been a clear message since the proposed acquisition that chimes with the message from GE – it will be business as usual in terms of the supply of production machines and materials for AM should the deals go ahead. It remains to be seen if last minute obstacles can be overcome, but as GE’s CFO Jeff Bornstein stated recently, the company does have options and alternatives.
 GE Plans to Invest $1.4B to Acquire Additive Manufacturing Companies Arcam and SLM; Accelerates Efforts in Important Digital Industrial Space, September 6, 2016, www.geaviation.com/press/other/other_20160906.html
 GE Reports: Here’s Why The Latest Guinness World Record Will Keep France Lit Up Long After Soccer Fans Leave, June 17, 2016, www.gereports.com/bouchain/
 Statement by the Board of Directors of Arcam in relation to the public offer by GE, PDF, September 6, 2016, www.arcamgroup.com
 Arcam closes strategic acquisition of titanium powder manufacturer AP&C, www.metal-am.com/arcam-closes-strategic-acquisition-of-titanium-powder-manufacturer-apc/
 Arcam subsidiary AP&C begins construction of second metal powder plant, www.metal-am.com/arcam-subsidiary-apc-begins-construction-second-metal-powder-plant/
 SLM Solutions approves merger with GE Aviation, September 6, 2016, https://slm-solutions.com/investor-relations/announcements/corporate-news/slm-solutions-approves-merger-ge-aviation
 SLM Solutions to begin metal powder production, www.metal-am.com/slm-solutions-to-begin-metal-powder-production/
 GE Aviation acquires Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Manufacturing, November 20, 2012, www.geaviation.com/press/other/other_20121120.html
 GE Completes Acquisition of Avio Aviation Business, August 1, 2013, www.geaviation.com/press/other/other_20130801.html
 Avio Aero orders ten Arcam EBM systems to enable series production of turbine blades, www.metal-am.com/avio-aero-orders-ten-arcam-ebm-systems-to-enable-series-production-of-turbine-blades/
 GE Aviation’s First Additive Manufactured Part Takes Off on a GE90 Engine, April 14, 2015, www.geaviation.com/press/ge90/ge90_20150414.html
 First LEAP 1A powered A320neo aircraft delivered to pegasus airlines, 21 Jult 2016, www.cfmaeroengines.com/press-articles/cfm-news-release-first-leap-1a-powered-a320neo-aircraft-delivered-pegasus-airlines/
 GE Reports, Airbus Gets 1st Production Jet Engines With 3D-Printed Parts From CFM, April 19, 2016, www.gereports.com/airbus-gets-1st-production-jet-engines-with-3d-printed-parts-from-cfm/
 GE Aviation Selects Auburn, AL for High Volume Additive Manufacturing Facility, July 15, 2014, www.geaviation.com/press/other/other_20140715.html
 GE Reports: All The 3D Print That’s Fit To Pitt: New Additive Technology Center Opens Near Steel Town, September 6, 2016, www.gereports.com/all-the-print-thats-fit-to-pitt-new-additive-technology-center-opens-near-steel-town/
 GE Oil & Gas to use robotics and 3D printing in futuristic Talamona plant, May 26, 2016, www.genewsroom.com/press-releases/ge-oil-gas-use-robotics-and-3d-printing-futuristic-talamona-plant-282977