In 2005, an engineer poring over designs for a new jet engine component at GE Aviation stumbled upon a sort of crazy idea: We can just make it ourselves.

She had been working with a local 3-D printing service in Cincinnati, Ohio, called Morris Technologies for about five years at that point, developing prototypes for a new kind of fuel injector.

Over that time, she had watched the additive technologies at Morris blossom from rough plastic models to finished metal pieces that almost seemed to rival the real thing. In fact, she thought, they did rival the real thing.

What’s more, she realized that “GE could use additive technologies to create intellectual property that it would not be able to do making it from traditional means,” recalls Greg Morris, cofounder and CEO of Morris Technologies.

“In fact, they could actually enhance the design by doing things they couldn’t do any other way outside of additive.”

So, the engineer thought, by abandoning the normal supply chain and its vast, global network of manufacturers responsible for producing the 20 or so components of the old fuel nozzle, GE could make a better, simple nozzle all by itself, designed and manufactured in-house.

It’s an idea that has inevitably dawned on just about every manufacturer, entrepreneur and futurist daydreamer involved in 3-D printing’s slow 30-year maturation.

In the 3-D printed supply chain, the theory goes, everything is an in-house job—every company is totally vertical and totally independent, every production effort totally local.

So as additive manufacturing builds up, the supply chain is flattened out, mashing the global web in a straight line stretching directly from producer to consumer.

It is supposed to herald a new age of innovation, of entrepreneurship, of streamlined, low-cost, high-efficiency, customizable green manufacturing.

And that sounds great. But it’s all just science fiction nonsense.

Except that GE is really doing it.

Reshaping an Industry

In 2016, GE Aviation’s additive production facility will begin printing fuel nozzles for the new LEAP jet engine—an engine that will be used to fly Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s and Comac 919s.

These are 100% 3-D printed components, designed by GE engineers and printed on GE equipment in GE factories, which will be churning out 30,000 to 40,000 of them per year by 2020.

This is exactly what the 3-D printing world has been waiting for.

“This is a fuel nozzle, not some trivial part,” Morris explains. “This is a technically exceedingly challenging part with a very, very demanding application with a critical role in the engine. It’s something that GE has never produced internally before, which it never could produce internally before. But now it will.”

And that, he says, is a big deal.

“This project alone has the promise to change the whole industry,” he says. “It’s a paradigm shift in how we design and manufacture certain components for our industrial products. It’s overwhelming how many different directions and ways GE can leverage this technology.”

Perhaps no one knows the extent of this impact better than Terry Wohlers, president and principal consultant at Wohlers Associates.

“This is an exciting time for the industry,” he says. “Additive manufacturing at this scale presents the opportunity to flatten the supply chain. Imagine consolidating 15 to 20 parts into one. Part numbers and assembly lines, certification paperwork and inspection, all of those things disappear.”

The impact of it has been developing for years, he says. Final part production, for example, has been on a steep vertical climb for over a decade, popping up in industries ranging from aerospace and medical devices to jewelry and dental crowns.

According to the Wohlers Report 2013, production of end-use parts like the fuel injector accounted for about 28.3% of the total $2.2 billion 3-D printing industry in 2012—that’s up 18% from the year previous and 626% from a decade ago.

“Final part production,” he says, “is really reshaping the entire industry.”