Additive Manufacturing (“AM”) broadly describes technologies that build 3D objects by adding layer-upon-layer of material . Though potentially revolutionary, companies across industries have taken different approaches to the application of this breakthrough technology. In 2015, Deloitte outlined four paths companies take in leveraging AM :
- Path I: Improve value delivery, product set and supply chain are unchanged.
- Path II: Improve economies of scale and revolutionize product supply chain.
- Path III: Enable top levels of performance across the product set.
- Path IV: Alter supply chains and products in pursuit of new business models.
Deloitte’s Framework for Understanding AM Paths and Potential Value
Though industrial conglomerate GE is typically thought of as a slow mover in innovation, its Aviation division has been an early adopter of AM technology, taking a Path IV approach to revolutionize the full-scale manufacturing of parts for its airplane turbine business.
In 2017, GE enjoyed 70% share in engines that power narrow-body jets, the world’s most widely produced airplanes . The company is investing heavily in AM to expand its dominant market position by widening the moat afforded to it by its production capabilities. As an example, in 2012 GE created a new, more fuel-efficient jet engine. In doing so, they had to overcome a key engineering challenge related to the engine’s fuel nozzle. The nozzle required 20 individual components to be welded together. After repeated failures, the team turned to AM to prototype a single piece of equipment that combined all 20 parts into one unit while weighing 25% less and being 5x more durable. In describing the technology, GE’s head of AM noted “The technology [is] incredible, in the design of jet engines, complexity used to be expensive. But additive allows you to get sophisticated and reduces costs at the same time.” By 2014, GE printed half of its engines with AM, reducing 900 components to 16 while delivering a product that is 40% lighter and 60% cheaper. Further, GE Aviation improved its supply chain by reducing reliance on sole-source suppliers and shifting production costs in-house. 
Though the recent wins in Aviation demonstrated AM’s potential within GE, former CEO Jeff Immelt’s ambitions for the technology were much greater. In 2016, GE acquired two AM companies. In tandem with the acquisitions, GE opened the Additive Training Center to teach engineers across its end market platforms how to apply AM technology in their respective businesses. Further, Immelt noted in the 2016 Annual report that GE aspired to reach $1 billion in AM sales by 2020, believing the technology would become a $75 billion market over the long-term. Immelt further believed GE would be at the forefront of this industrial revolution by selling AM technologies as a standalone product, estimating only 10% of long term sales would go to GE internally. 
Though progress to date has been impressive in Aviation, the company has offered few details of the technology’s applications across its other businesses, aside from traditional Phase I-III applications primarily dealing with rapid prototyping . Given GE management aims to scale this business by selling its AM capabilities across industries, it must first focus on applying the technology across its own businesses. The reasons for this are threefold. First, given GE’s expansive end market coverage (Healthcare, Oil & Gas, Power, Aviation, etc.), the company has an unrivaled testing ground for how the technology can be applied across different use cases. Second, AM applications are generally quite customized, requiring knowledge of materials, long-term production targets, and supply chain dynamics which must be iterated on throughout the manufacturing process. Thus, GE must first become a true expert in the technology and its application within its own portfolio, so it can approach clients with a more credible value proposition. Lastly, given GE’s current financial challenges and restructuring efforts, the company is in desperate need of cash. Leveraging AM to drive efficiencies across business units will allow them to climb the learning curve without having to invest capital dollars to scale a largely unproven technology outside of its core businesses to serve outside customers.
Though GE has demonstrated the potential of AM in Aviation, the company has not meaningfully adopted the technology in its other product lines. This lack of adoption internally will make it challenging to sell the service to outside clients who are likely skeptical of the technology’s benefits and broad applications beyond prototyping. The main question left unanswered is how can GE drive adoption of AM technology across its platforms internally, so it can convince others of its merits and attempt to compete in this emerging industrial category?
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