Selling To Yourself: 3D Printing In Bigger Corporations

By on June 24th, 2019 in Ideas

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  Arcam machines at the Avio Aero, a GE Aviation company, additive manufacturing factory in Cameri, Italy. [Image: Avio Aero]
Arcam machines at the Avio Aero, a GE Aviation company, additive manufacturing factory in Cameri, Italy. [Image: Avio Aero]

For some of the big-name players who have entered into 3D printing, their biggest customers are…themselves.

They often refer to it as “eating our own dog food”: listen to enough heads of 3D printing businesses within the big guys talk and you’ll be sure to hear the phrase come up more than a few times. It’s a nice (nice?) way of saying they use their own products internally.

But should those really count toward sales figures? Recently, for example, GE Additive announced a hefty amount of 3D printer sales; out of 34 machine sales announced in a 10-day span, 27 of those were sold to GE Aviation. We’ve received some comments sarcastically congratulating them on selling to themselves.

At a glance, it’s a fair point: GE is selling to GE. And it goes beyond that; HP is using HP’s 3D printing equipment for its other equipment. Some of the more notable MJF installations are at HP itself, where the company’s large-format 2D printers are making use of the internal 3D printing capabilities for parts.

So let’s look just at these two companies for a minute.

General Electric (GE) was founded in 1892; Hewlett-Packard (the original HP) was founded in 1939 (and split into Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and HP Inc. in 2015; we’re concerned now with HP Inc., which operates the 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing business).

Both companies have quite an extensive legacy of operations, spanning from GE’s lightbulbs to HP’s computers. Both used their internal know-how to develop their own 3D printers; GE also famously relied on acquisitions to build up its 3D printing portfolio.

And both companies operate more than a few businesses. Per Wikipedia, GE’s current primary business divisions include:

  • Baker Hughes, a GE Company

  • GE Additive

  • GE Aviation

  • GE Capital

  • GE Digital

  • GE Healthcare

  • GE Lighting

  • GE Power

  • GE Renewable Energy

  • GE Global Research

These are not “pure” 3D printing companies, and heads of both have described their operations in additive manufacturing as the sort of “startup within a large company” mentality.

And frankly, there’s a wide line between GE Aviation’s activities and those of GE Additive, between making an additive manufacturing system and creating a new airliner engine. Likewise, while both MJF and large-format 2D printers use HP’s inkjet technology, the ways in which they apply them, and what for, are rather different; there’s little comparison between 3D printing a cranial reshaping helmet for an infant and printing a large color advertisement for a building or billboard. But that’s not the overlap for these internal sales; it’s 3D printing a part for the 2D printer. It’s 3D printing a part for a jet engine.

We don’t bat an eye when another 3D printer is installed at an aviation company or machinery manufacturer; those installations show a realistic investment into 3D printing because the technology makes sense for these operations.

For a company like GE or HP, there’s something important to remember: they’re big. They’re really big. GE employs around 283,000; HP Inc. employs around 55,000 (with 60,000 at HPE following that split).

Global businesses with well-known names and massive supply chains also tend to have a lot of charming bureaucracy; it takes a while to approve something new. Every decision has to fit The Brand, and there are a lot of channels to make that happen.

Even when one of those channels might involve walking down a hall or across a corporate campus to the next building, there are still hoops; the solutions need to make practical sense.

In that sense, eating one’s own dog food is an excellent endorsement: the hoops have been jumped, the hurdles cleared, the dotted line signed. And the dog fed, I suppose.

There’s good business sense in it, of course, with the ability to promote more internal expertise and a bit more gloating to be done to shareholders. It looks good.

For a company that needs parts made, to operate a business that makes parts and then actually use those processes can shorten supply chains (also enhancing sustainability, which is an absolute must in the 21st century) with tangible benefits other than gloating.

Does it sound a little hinky when a major supplier announces a big sale to, effectively, itself? Sure. But “itself” is more than the 3D printing business; “itself” is a major customer generating significant revenue by making the kinds of goods that benefit from adopting additive manufacturing.

If a big sale is ever Big Company 3D Printing selling Big Company 3D Printers to its Big Company 3D Printing division, then we’ll have a more serious talk. Until then, it seems that we’re just looking at a pretty standard business operation and another way that bringing 3D printing into businesses works.

By Sarah Goehrke

Sarah Goehrke is a Special Correspondent for Fabbaloo, via a partnership with Additive Integrity LLC. Focused on the 3D printing industry since 2014, she strives to bring grounded and on-the-ground insights to the 3D printing industry. Sarah served as Fabbaloo's Managing Editor from 2018-2021 and remains active in the industry through Women in 3D Printing and other work.