The Next Chapter in German Industry by GE


The Industrial Internet and additive manufacturing are together going to reshape the world of German business, says GE’s Carlos Haertel.

Carlos Haertel knows a thing or two about German manufacturing. During his 14 years with GE, he has seen processes change and evolve through innovation ― but never as rapidly as today.

As CTO & Chief Innovation Officer of GE Europe and head of GE’s European Technology Center in Germany, he has been at the forefront of the company’s transition to the Industrial Internet, or ‘Industry 4.0’. Now, he is spearheading a new push to roll out 3D printing technologies that are changing the way things are made. In December, the company will open a new Customer Experience Center in Munich, which will help other companies deploy these additive manufacturing technologies, including industrial 3D printing.

So why has the company chosen to open this center in Germany?

Carlos, at GE’s European Technology Center you’ve been working to roll out Industrial Internet solutions, or Industry 4.0, in various sectors here in Germany. What does Industry 4.0 mean in a German context?

Haertel: You’ll find similar initiatives in many countries around the world. But Germany is a large manufacturing hub for advanced products, and for high-tech products. Making sure that this industry base can be sustained, and the employment that goes with it, requires continuous investment in improvements.

Initially, Industry 4.0 was very much focused on the next phase of industry automation. Upgrading, and finding ways of utilizing the advances we have in technology. That focus has in turn been upgraded, and the goals refined to increasing industrial automation using big data collected from many different points.

Now, additive manufacturing is being added to the mix.

What are some examples of how Industry 4.0 is being used in Germany today?

Haertel: As one example, the Industrial Internet has huge potential for the Energiewende [Germany’s transition to cleaner energy]. It’s a change from more controllable sources of power, to renewable ones that are less controllable ― because wind and sun are intermittent.

In this instance, something that is fundamentally centralized is going to become decentralized. When renewables in minigrids are less strongly connected to main grids, then it’s quite obvious that something like information technology will be needed.

Utilities businesses are asking things like, can I predict what’s going to happen to the grid? Can I predict what the wind speed is going to be three hours from now? What sunshine will be available at what point in time? All of that requires information to be gathered from many individual sensing stations across the grid — to be gathered, analyzed, and then some actions to be taken on the conclusions of that data.

That is something that power plants haven’t needed to do before. In its simplest form, the only thing a power plant needed to sense was voltage and frequency. You didn’t need a lot of data-based intelligence before, but not having those solutions in place will no longer be sufficient.

I understand GE has recently partnered with Deutsche Bahn Cargo to retrofit GSM connections. How are these Industry 4.0 solutions being used in transport?

Haertel: Fundamentally, in transport you are dealing with assets that move around. The thing you are interested in optimizing is when those assets experience down time. You need to know the locations; what is where?

The German railways want to make sure they do not have any unplanned down time. That is a very ambitious goal, zero unplanned down time. But it’s something that the concept of asset performance management has as one of its core pillars.

You will always have some planned down time, because you have to maintain the engines and so on. But the unplanned, where locomotive gets stranded somewhere for some reason and someone has to go figure it out, that you can avoid with APM resources like GE’s Rail 360 APM solutions.

GE has been working on these Industrial Internet solutions for some time, and now you’ve been turning your attention to additive manufacturing. What is additive manufacturing exactly, and how is it being implemented in Germany?

Haertel: Additive manufacturing is not necessarily connected to Industry 4.0. It has developed independently of it. But there is a point of connection in how additive manufacturing starts out from data, and then builds a component or device.

So if you are already dealing intensely with data and Industry 4.0, then adding additive manufacturing is relatively straightforward. They mesh naturally.

Manufacturing has three facets, or elements. The first element is the machines. This is where everything starts In the case of additive manufacturing, it’s the 3D printers.

The second element is the application. Additive manufacturing is applied in a different production context, where you make the parts using the printers.

The third element of manufacturing is everything that comes around that ― the services around qualifying parts for final application in regulated environments, like aviation or healthcare.

What we have been doing in Germany is investing in the first element, the machines. Earlier this year, GE acquired a majority stake in Concept Laser, a company from the north of Bavaria. They produce 3D printers. They use specific technology, which comes in as a metal powder.

For applications, we are in the process of building our presence in Germany, as we’ve done in countries like Switzerland. In Zurich, we take printers and use them for repair applications. That services element is something we will do more of in Germany once our customer experience center is up and running.

Yes, the Customer Experience Center in Munich opening in December. Why did you choose Munich as the site for this new center?

Haertel: To understand why this was the right thing to do now, you have to look back a couple years. We started our journey into additive manufacturing with the aviation business. We were looking at a complicated new design for a fuel injector.

It turned out that classical manufacturing just wasn’t able to produce that part. It was decided to hand it to someone who had a 3D service shop, to just give it a try. The result was so positive, GE decided to produce this one part in an additive way without even having a fallback option with classical manufacturing. It was all-in with additive.

From then on, we have continuously invested in more 3D printing for more components. We’ve gathered a lot of educational experience. We think there are a large number of businesses that could benefit from 3D printing, but the companies aren’t aware of the potential. So if we want to be a company that sells 3D printing from powder and machines to services, we have to help others understand what 3D printing can do in their respective industries.

Is additive going to be majorly disruptive to German manufacturing?

Haertel: The term disruption is used differently by different people. But disruption is when one technology is being displaced by another. When you look at the digital side of things, I don’t see that as displacing something. When today’s solution becomes obsolete because of a new future solution based on internet technologies that just gives you another very strong tool in your tool kit.

What you will see is probably a gradual change from traditional technologies to 3D printing. It will take a while before a 3D printer is mature enough to do what some machines could do in the past. When it comes time to refresh your machine parts, a 3D machine might be preferred. For now, most still have to work with an existing base of other manufacturing technologies.

It’s very different from say, the invention of the mobile phone. That was all of a sudden there, and people wanted it. There was nothing else they were using before. Here, these are additions to existing technology. So the time scale will be a natural, refreshing cycle.