General Electric Co. has launched a three-dimensional (3-D) printing venture with the industrial firm Oerlikon, as GE continues to transform itself from an industrial manufacturing giant into a digital technology provider.
Boston-based GE's "GE Additive" division will team with Swiss-based Oerlikon to accelerate the industrialization of additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, the firms said Wednesday.
Under the agreement, Oerlikon will become a preferred component manufacturer and materials supplier to GE Additive and its affiliated companies, Concept Laser GmbH and Arcam AB. In return, GE will supply additive machines and services to Oerlikon. In the long term, the deal also calls for GE and Oerlikon to collaborate on research and development (R&D) into additive machines and materials over a five-year period.
The deal is the latest sign that GE plans to evolve from a manufacturing colossus to a company largely focused on mastering the digital domain. The announcement comes weeks after Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, who had spearheaded the transformation, said he would step down in August after 16 years at the helm and hand the reins to GE Healthcare President and CEO John Flannery.
GE has been steadily bulking up its 3-D printing portfolio, with $1.4 billion in recent investments, which include the 2016 acquisition of a 75-percent stake in German 3-D printing company Concept Laser and a similar stake in the Swedish firm Arcam, a specialist in metal-based additive manufacturing.
The company believes that 3-D printing of parts can save money over the traditional storage and transportation of spare parts because companies could email the designs to a location close to the user instead of shipping the physical part from a warehouse. 3-D printing providers create physical parts from digital designs by taking electronic blueprints from computer-aided design (CAD) software and building products layer by layer on an additive machine from metal powder or other materials.
Another benefit is that additive components are typically lighter, more durable, and more efficient than traditional casting and forged parts because they can be made as one piece and require fewer welds, joints, and assembly steps, GE said. 3-D printed parts also generate less waste material because additive parts are essentially "grown" from the ground up, according to GE.
Those benefits have drawn an increasing number of supply chain businesses to launch 3-D printing efforts to streamline their logistics processes. For example, German software giant SAP SE and Atlanta-based transport and logistics company UPS Inc. have announced plans to launch a "Distributed Manufacturing" service that will combine SAP's manufacturing supply chain and Internet of Things (IoT) offerings with UPS' physical distribution network.
Oerlikon has also been investing in the 3-D printing sector, acquiring Citim GmbH in 2016 to complement its additive production capabilities in Europe and the U.S. and announcing plans to build an additive-manufacturing powder production facility in Plymouth, Mich., an R&D and production facility in Charlotte, N.C., and an R&D and innovation center in Munich.