The main hall of the GE Power plant in Greenville, South Carolina, has 65-foot-tall ceilings and is the length of several football fields. Here workers assemble heavy-duty gas turbines that are over 10 feet wide and 30 feet long, weighing up to 560,000 pounds. The largest of these turbines installed in a typical power plant can generate enough electricity for 500,000 U.S. homes. The complex job of assembling one turbine can take six weeks.
In a corner of a nearby building, something far smaller is being made. One of hundreds of parts that go into a GE turbine, this one, called a flex tip, is no bigger than a can of soda. This part, which is key in the fuel system of a turbine, is important as much for how it was designed and manufactured as for the role it will play in a turbine.
The flex tip is one of the first products to come out of a new R&D center on the Greenville campus, and an example of how General Electric, one of the world’s largest manufacturers, is trying to update the way it develops and commercializes new technologies. By locating a research facility focused on advanced manufacturing next to a plant, the company is betting that good ideas from the factory floor will be more likely to find their way to the lab for development, and that new ideas will be tested and moved into production more quickly.
There’s an urgency to all this. Customers expect GE to speed up innovation, says Kurt Goodwin, who runs the center. Goodwin describes the facility as “a bridge over the valley of death with research centers on one side coming up with great ideas and on the other production that could make them ready [for the market].” An innovation could get stuck in the middle for a decade, he says.
GE’s bridge, a 125,000-square-foot building called the Advanced Manufacturing Works, cost $73 million to get up and running. Its front functions as a showroom for manufacturing technologies GE is testing: 3-D printers, lasers, robotic arms, among others. Just behind these exhibits, a door opens into a wide-open factory space of high ceilings and cement floors. Here researchers and engineers are leading clusters of experiments, trying to find ways to use these technologies to solve particular business needs.
The new flex tip is one of the first promising ideas to make it across campus to the turbine factory for production. Kassy Hart, an additive manufacturing engineer with degrees in both mechanical engineering and mechanical design, is the one who was charged with figuring out how to manufacture the new part. The design, which features long, small holes under the surface of the metal, helps the part function more efficiently. It would have taken a long time to make if GE had tried to use the conventional manufacturing process of metal casting. Instead, the flex tip is being printed on a 3-D printer using additive manufacturing.
It is the first part that GE, which has put a big focus on additive manufacturing across the company, is producing in Greenville for its turbines.
Hart’s team was given just six months to get it into production, and that required a lot of trial and error. It took five months before the team made a part that met standards, but now the line is in full swing with 10 printers operating and 95 percent of the parts hitting specifications. “I think everyone has to go through that failure mode before they can learn and adapt,” says Hart.
Each printing takes 60 hours, and multiple machines run consecutively. During a tour of the facility in early August, a pair of operators and one supervisor were overseeing all the machines. Dressed in coveralls and respirators, the operators tend to the printers—large, square machines with a glass door in one corner opening up into the printing chamber. They clean them, filling them with cobalt chrome and other materials for the printing, and monitor their progress.
With the flex tip a success, Goodwin’s team is testing out new ideas they might bring to the printer line. Today, Goodwin says, the challenge is less about finding great technology to use in manufacturing and more about getting people who have always done things a certain way to think more broadly.
“Our own people have to learn to think differently about what you can make,” he says.