GE Global Technology Director: 3D printing is laying foundation for next industrial revolution

"Manufacturing is evolving at a pace we have not seen for 60 years. The next industrial revolution is here," proclaims GE's Christine Furstoss, Global Technology Director, Manufacturing & Materials. But the revolution won't achieve its full potential unless manufacturers rethink some basic assumptions, she adds.

Furstoss painted a vivid picture of this tectonic shift in manufacturing, where the "digital and physical worlds converge," at the recent Medical Design & Manufacturing East conference in New York City. She volunteered additional thoughts during a phone interview with PlasticsToday following the event.

Christine Furstoss, GE
Christine Furstoss, Global Technology Director,
Manufacturing & Materials, GE

"Additive manufacturing (AM), a term I prefer over 3D printing, is the key driver of this change," says Furstoss, but it is one part of a larger picture. Greater integration is needed to build the "brilliant factory" of tomorrow. For example, AM should be part of an integrated process that adds features, produces tooling, and repairs returned parts, she explains.

Industry is not immune to the constant flow of data, and the data beg to be harnessed in meaningful ways. "Industrial data is growing at twice the rate of other data," says Furstoss. Use it to drive manufacturing innovation, provide feedback to machines and designers, she adds.

Manufacturing needs to be agile and receptive to technological change and evolving customer demand. For example, the conventional model of front-loading risk and investment into the design phase of a project makes sense in a linear process, but AM works concurrently, says Furstoss. This shift requires new software, new skill sets, new ways of thinking, she stresses.

The power of AM is design freedom. "Complexity is free," says Furstoss. "You're not just replacing a machine or adding a new system. It's a whole new way of working, and that is the really exciting part."

Forget about silos. The new manufacturing paradigm is built around collaboration, internally but also externally. GE, for one, has been quite successful at crowdsourcing innovation. At the MD&M East conference, Furstoss cited two recent examples: one additive manufacturing quest involved aircraft engine brackets; the other challenge focused on components for medical imaging systems.

Aircraft engine brackets are among many load-carrying parts on the engine that, because they were designed for conventional machining technologies, are not fully optimized for performance and weight. By shedding the constraints of traditional manufacturing techniques and relying on the innovative power of the crowd, GM hoped to find a way to reduce bracket weight without sacrificing performance. The result of the challenge exceeded all expectations, says Furstoss.

"We received more than 600 entries in two weeks from people around the world ranging in age from 16 to 82," says Furstoss. The most promising solution came from "a 17 year old from Indonesia who used software I had never heard of to design a part that was 80% lighter than what is currently being used. GE is now investigating the design further. That's the power of open innovation," says Furstoss.

More recently, GE launched a design challenge involving collimators that are used in medical imaging systems. The global medical imaging market is expected to reach $35.5 billion by 2019, and GE is interested in pursuing new component designs that will simplify manufacturing and reduce costs. "We currently use tungsten alloys, a difficult material," says Furstoss. "So we put the call out to the community, withholding about 5% of the intellectual property." The community, again, responded. "We found new networks of potential partners and collaborators in around three months," says Furstoss.

Further ahead, Furstoss sees the beginnings of a biological factory. "This won't happen immediately, but we are following work being done at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere in terms of cell therapy and personalized medicine," says Furstoss. "A question we are looking at is how to use AM and appropriate software to accelerate research and parts fabrication. There are any number of meticulously designed single-use parts for medical applications," she notes. "One can imagine a biological factory in proximity to clinics, for example. It opens up a new world of possibilities, but it creates new responsibilities, as well," says Furstoss.

Norbert Sparrow

Norbert Sparrow is Senior Editor at PlasticsToday. Follow him on twitter @norbertcsparrow and Google+.

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