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Why are established manufacturers bringing 3D printing in-house?

Much was made in the manufacturing industry press when General Electric (GE) acquired Arcam AB in September 2016. Following a failed acquisition of SLM, GE would acquire a second AM bureau, Concept Laser, in December of the same year, and partner with Stryker in June 2017. GE’s Chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt described the developments as part of a wider move towards operating as a ‘digital industrial company’, with AM as a key component of this evolution.

So what is the rationale behind a global manufacturing company investing in AM to this extent?

Put simply, it represents the logical next step in consolidating AM into manufacturing workflows, both for prototyping and production. Prior to these acquisitions, GE Aviation had successfully utilised 3D-printed metal parts for jet engines, most notably the highly-regarded LEAP engine. Based on this early success, it made sense to take advantage of the acquired companies’ geographical footprint and range of technologies to make AM technology available to all areas of their operations around the world. The technology could be made widely accessible, while GE could continue to provide full centralised management and ensure the uptake of the new technology was successful. Since then, GE has continued its research into AM technology (particularly in the area of metal 3D printing) and found applications for it across multiple areas of its global business.

We saw this again in February of 2017, when leading German CNC specialist DMG Mori acquired a 50.1% stake in Realizer — a German AM company, well-known for its selective laser melting technology. This was another experienced, well-established manufacturer who had seen the full potential offered by AM, and demonstrated its commitment to making full use of it in its day-to-day operations. Before this, DMG Mori had already developed and launched a true hybrid printer in the form of the LASERTEC 65 3D system, which combined AM technology with five-axis milling capabilities, allowing parts to be both printed and shaped as appropriate.

Both success stories present a powerful argument for consolidating AM and traditional manufacturing services in fully integrated, centralised operations. When multiple technologies are brought together, effective processes put in place, and a smooth communication flow established, the potential is enormous. Multiple technologies can be deployed intelligently at different projects stages, with new hybrid processes and technologies developing as a natural side-effect of this.

While not all manufacturers are currently in a position to make such a serious investment in AM, we are seeing more and more companies exploring the applications of 3D printing technology within their own production workflows and developing strong, stable partnerships with AM specialists. As these trends continue, we expect that more and more world-leading manufacturers will be seriously considering acquisitions of this sort, or investing in their own AM operations.