The Man Who Went From Pistachio Farming to Leading the Next Industrial Revolution
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if manufacturing undergoes a radical shift, it’s good to know the name of the man responsible.
OZY and GE are partnering to bring you an inside look into how additive manufacturing is changing the way things are made across industries and across the world.
Mohammad Ehteshami isn’t the kind of guy to let opportunities slip by. After all, it’s not easy to go from living in a dusty desert village in Iran to heading up bold plans to bring about a 3D printing revolution for GE. The path from a pistachio farm in the Middle East to the frontline of engineering innovation in Ohio was neither obvious nor direct. Ehteshami took some detours and had a stint as a taxi driver in Boston before working construction. The gregarious 61-year-old — who talks proudly about working various jobs to pay his way through engineering school — wouldn’t have it any other way.
Because maybe it’s not getting things easily that emboldens people to take risks. After decades spent working his way up to head engineering at GE Aviation, Ehteshami took a risk by trying something in secret: 3D printing a complex jet engine part not as a prototype, but for active duty. The gamble paid off. Now he’s running GE Additive, GE’s brand-new business arm, with the ambitious vision of transforming how the world makes things. 3D printing is often referred to as additive manufacturing, reflecting that additive technology makes products by adding layers of material from the ground up, rather than subtracting pieces from larger sheets of material.
I saw that this technology could eliminate everything we’ve been doing for years and years.
Mohammad Ehteshami, GE Additive
“I remember that day like today,” Ehteshami says, recalling the moment the first part came off the printer. “I was excited but also disturbed. I saw that this technology could eliminate everything we’ve been doing for years and years.” The part, a fuel nozzle impossible to make by traditional methods, ended up in what is today GE’s best-selling jet engine, the LEAP, powering Airbus’ A320neo since last summer. But following Ehteshami’s experiment, GE didn’t just want to print fuel nozzles. The company now plans to spread the 3D printing gospel throughout manufacturing and across the globe.
Ehteshami being the bringer of the next industrial revolution would’ve seemed unlikely when he was growing up. In his village of fewer than 100 people, the conventional career path ended at pistachio farmer — though he says his mom wasn’t having any of it. “My mother was the only woman there who could read and write,” he explains. “She told me early on that by no means would I be like everyone else.” Does he credit Mrs. Ehteshami with everything that followed? “Well, you cannot argue with your mother,” he replies.
After earning an engineering masters at the University of Cincinnati, he eventually scored a role at GE. “A few weeks after I joined GE, I told my wife that I found my place and I’d retire, get fired or die in this job, but I wasn’t quitting.”
That deeply emotional connection to his work propels Ehteshami from breakthrough to breakthrough. Recalling the time he worked on the GE90 for Boeing’s 777 — which came to be the world’s largest and most powerful jet engine — Ehteshami admits, “it was also the most demanding. When you think that a test is going to go one way but the engine performs differently, I would feel it both technically and emotionally. That project made me a better man.”
And so to his lightbulb moment — or what he calls an “epiphany of disruption.” His team had designed a fuel nozzle that would dramatically increase the efficiency of an engine they were developing — but the design was too complex to cast. Ehteshami’s printing experiment succeeded in combining all 20 components of the design into a single unit. “The technology was incredible,” Ehteshami recalls. “Complexity used to be expensive. But additive allows you to get sophisticated and reduces costs at the same time.”
From a single fuel nozzle, Ehteshami’s ambition now scales the highs of GE Additive’s transformative goals. No mere side project, GE made significant investments in three additive technology companies last year. Ehteshami’s enthusiasm seems to be infectious. “My opinion is that he is an expeditious man,” Laurence Vigeant-Langlois, executive marketing leader at GE Additive, says. “You’ll never hear him say, ‘Go slower.’ He’s taken risks. He brings tremendous credibility and perspective.”
There remains a healthy-size crowd of 3D printing skeptics, however. Lingering issues include speed, the selection of materials and a need for new skills, not to mention the overwhelming task of completely reordering the manufacturing industry’s structure. Experts point out traditional processes currently scale better, faster and cheaper. Though it’s worth remembering 3D printing is only in its nascent stages.
Ehteshami was never going to be the guy to “wait and see.” “Once you start thinking about it, you realize both intellectually and emotionally, ‘Oh my God, if I don’t start moving, somebody else will,’ ” he says. “You are excited because you are an engineer, but you are also afraid because you are a human being. Both of these feelings start pulling at you to say: ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go.’
“And you start running.”