GE just purchased two European 3D printing companies (Arcam AB and SLM Solutions) for 1.4 billion. This makes the largest 3D printing industry M&A deal this year. Why? Why would the industrial giant put so much money into what many view to be an emerging industry? (Even though 3D printing has been around for a while.)
GE is not new to the 3D printing and additive manufacturing game. Rumors flew around in 2015 that GE might be interested in buying 3D printing company 3D Systems. GE has also purchased companies such as Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Manufacturing, though this newest investment is far larger.
Internally, GE’s Advanced Manufacturing Works in Greenville, SC has been operating since April 2016 (which is home to three 3D printers they purchased before the models even came on the market). The Center for Additive Technology Advancement, based in Pittsburgh, PA, also opened April 2016 and has the goal of figuring out how to incorporate additive manufacturing into all of GE’s divisions.
Currently GE Oil & Gas and GE Aviation are the two divisions most invested in additive manufacturing. And it is GE Aviation that will be overseeing GE’s most recent acquisitions.
Why These Purchases?
GE is accomplishing great things in the aerospace industry with the technology it already has. But metal additive manufacturing has seen slow growth in the past:
- It is associated with high costs (purchase of machines).
- The machines are considered to develop products too slowly.
- Part sizes were considered limited.
These issues made 3D printing perfect for industries creating high-value, customized parts, such as aerospace. Both Arcam and SLM are companies at the forefront of changing these perceptions about metal additive manufacturing with the technologies they’ve developed.
Up until now GE has been using 3D printers equipped with lasers, like those produced by SLM. Having access to SLM’s technologies will allow GE to expand their current services and add new capabilities. The company has been creating and selling parts made through additive manufacturing, but now they can start manufacturing their own 3D printers.
The problem with lasers is the machines often can’t handle the very hard materials many industrial products are made from. But Arcam developed an electron beam melting (EBM) machine. The electron beam does just fine with materials like titanium aluminide and other hard metals. Arcam also holds patents on several metal powders used for different products.
Both SLM and Arcam have existing customers in industries GE is already heavily involved in, such as aerospace, healthcare, and energy.
This is Why GE is Investing So Much
With traditional manufacturing processes, you start out with a lot of raw material. And then you have to cut off excess material until you have the shape you want.
Additive manufacturing does the opposite. The material, whether metal, plastic, sand, or a number of other choices, is added layer by layer. This comes with a number of benefits:
- Less material is wasted. The process uses less overall, and excess can be vacuumed up and re-used.
- More design complexity. Because the layers are practically microscopic (20-80 microns), designers have more flexibility.
- Faster prototyping. You don’t have to send out for any part of the prototyping: the design can be uploaded into the 3D printer and printed in a matter of hours.
- Less welding. Depending on the design, pieces can be crafted together as they’re printing.
- Lighter parts. Since the part is being built up rather than trimmed down, there is very little to no unnecessary material (such as inside where other machines can’t reach to cut away).
- More durable parts. The materials used and lack of welds means fewer places to break or wear.
- Customization. Designs can easily be altered to fit a customer’s specifications without having to switch out parts in the machine.
GE now has over 2.9 billion invested in additive manufacturing, and plans on adding another 1,000 3D printers over the next ten years. This is further proof that 3D printing is becoming mainstream for industrial manufacturing.
See the 3D Printing Materials Guide for a detailed list of materials used today.