New GE facility helps Western Pa. build rep as center for 3-D printing
Pittsburgh may have diversified beyond its industrial past, but General Electric's chief executive said the city can become a leader in 21st-century manufacturing.
“We think Pittsburgh has the chance, not the certainty, but has the chance to be one of the four or five destinations for additive manufacturing,” said Jeff Immelt, CEO and chairman of Fairfield, Conn.-based GE. “And we wanted to be here on the ground floor.”
Immelt was in Findlay on Tuesday to open GE's Center for Additive Technology Advancement. The 125,000-square-foot facility, larger than two football fields, will be a hub for engineers and researchers from throughout GE who will explore how to incorporate additive manufacturing, called 3-D printing, across all eight of GE's lines of business.
Aviation, oil and gas and energy production will be a particular focus early on, but it has broader potential, said Philippe Cochet, GE's chief productivity officer.
The Center represents a $39 million investment from GE and will employ 50 engineers and researchers by next year, executives said. Currently, 22 people work there. The company employs about 7,000 people in Pennsylvania and has locomotive plants in Grove City and Erie.
GE executives, state officials and others attending the opening spoke of developing a local ecosystem around additive manufacturing, a process that makes solid objects by printing thin layers of plastic or metal on top of one another.
The additive manufacturing industry surpassed $5.1 billion worldwide in 2015, up 26 percent from the year before, according to a report released Tuesday by Wohlers Associates Inc., a Fort Collins, Colo.-based manufacturing consulting firm.
Pittsburgh is building a reputation as a center for 3-D printing. North Huntingdon-based ExOne makes 3-D printers — its machines were being used in GE's new facility. Aluminum maker Alcoa recently completed an expansion of its tech center in Upper Burrell to focus on 3-D printing.
Pittsburgh has a rich industrial history and supply of expertise coming from its universities that makes it an attractive place for the industry, said Terry Wohlers, founder of Wohlers Associates.
“If you look at Pittsburgh, it has a tradition in manufacturing and metals,” Wohlers said. “Alcoa is all about metals, and GE manufacturing is largely about metals.”
Additive manufacturing is capable of making a range of products — from airplane parts to health care devices and prescription pills — faster and with less waste than traditional manufacturing methods. For example, GE can make fuel nozzles for jet engines that weigh 15 percent less than those made traditionally, and which are composed of a single unit rather than 20 separate parts, Cochet said.
But there are limitations. While efficient on a small scale, additive manufacturing cannot produce large volumes quickly. GE's center in Findlay will be a hub where engineers throughout the company can investigate how to use the machines most effectively and then roll out best practices to production facilities elsewhere.
Alcoa is doing something similar with its $60 million expansion in the Upper Burrell research center. Alcoa hopes to use 3-D manufacturing to more efficiently produce parts for the airline and automotive industries, where it has been shifting focus as it moves beyond its mining and smelting past.
Pittsburgh is not just attractive because of its rich manufacturing history, GE and Alcoa officials said. It offers access to a pool of research talent at local universities.
Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh was in the audience during the unveiling, sitting in the front row as Immelt spoke of investing in Pittsburgh. Suresh said he was happy to partner with GE to achieve its goals.
“There's a lot we can do together,” Suresh said. “We can be a potential pipeline of talent to a facility like this one.”
Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854.