3D 3D

Adding to manufacturing

Additive manufacturing evaluation services help determine which parts are a good fit

by Jimmy Myers, senior editor




In just a few short years, additive manufacturing (AM) has jumped from a niche market (putting it lightly) to a serious consideration for just about any part imaginable. However, figuring out if the process is a good fit can be difficult without some assistance.


Fortunately, EOS, a global technology and quality leader for high-end AM solutions has established Additive Minds, a consultative service that assists customers in determining what can be produced, the cost, the amount of time it will require and if there will be any value add.


Benjamin Haller, application development consultant at EOS, led a webinar recently that covers exactly what the Additive Minds group brings to the table. Essentially, they are employed to help interested parties determine whether AM is a process worth consideration.


Finding the right application is typically the first step in adopting the AM process, which the Additive Minds team is tasked to help customers with. The next step is to develop the application, which includes redesigning certain components, but also developing process parameters for certain applications. Next is to start production, either using internal systems or a third-party provider. Last is to certify the production and scale it globally in additional facilities, if applicable.


Benjamin Haller, application development consultant at EOS, assists customers in determining the effectiveness of producing parts through the additive manufacturing process.



Finding focus

Haller stresses how important it is to select the right application before simply investing in AM technology. He says, “focused learning – focusing on the most important aspects of additive manufacturing” is key. He also says that understanding the learning curve involved will benefit the overall process. Essentially, when a comprehensive game plan is put in place, the path to full adoption is, inevitably, smoother.


“By only focusing on the most important aspects for your company, you can reduce complexity,” he continues. “And, you can identify, ahead of time, the key people that need to be trained based on the applications and the areas you want to focus on.”


Selecting the right application runs parallel to earning a “proof of concept.” Simply put, this includes making sure the applications are feasible for the AM process.


“Identifying the right application allows you to gain a quick proof of concept,” Haller notes. “It helps you to understand the opportunities and limitations of today’s additive manufacturing. But it also allows you to outline realistic parts, meeting technical and economic requirements to start.”


By selecting the application first, AM adopters will be better equipped to devise a clear roadmap based on the product and current market dynamics. What is viable today might not be viable in the future.


“You’re not only looking at the role that additive manufacturing plays in today’s business,” Haller says, “but also in three to five years.”


He recommends companies ask themselves questions, such as which area they plan to use AM. And, is it for prototypes, tooling, serial production, spare parts and aftersales, or a completely different area?


During the webinar, 65 percent of participants responded that they would use the technology for prototyping. However, Haller’s experience over the last three years has been that the focus for most manufacturers has turned from prototyping to other areas, including serial production.




Part screening

To help determine the right application for AM, the Additive Minds service takes a customer through a list of assessments to determine if AM is right for the part. The assessments focus on technical fit, which involves determining if the part material is available and if the AM process meets the requirements of the application.


A common barrier to AM in regard to technical fit is, coincidentally, size. Build size is an issue as metal AM machines themselves are limited in size; currently, industrially proven systems are built to handle materials no larger than 400 mm in all three dimensions.


Quality remains important, which is another assessment that Additive Minds helps customers determine. In fact, Haller says quality is often the most critical technical component of the assessment for the majority of his customers.


“It’s typical to ask customers what are the most critical requirements of their parts,” he says. “First, you want to look at material properties – tensile strength or hardness – and geometry, such as requirements regarding tolerances and surface finish.”


If the part is being used in a critical environment, it might need to be certified, which adds another quality element to consider. Haller advises that parts used in a less critical environment are a better place to start.




An economic fit

The complexity of the part helps determine if AM is a smart option. “As we say in additive manufacturing, complexity comes for free,” Haller jokes.


For complex applications, AM has a clear advantage. Non-complex parts can often be completed at a less expensive rate with conventional manufacturing technologies. However, as the complexity ramps up, so does the price per unit under traditional manufacturing. If laid out on a chart, at some point, the two processes meet at the same price point.


However, there is more to consider than just the cost per unit. For example, pre-processing involves data preparation, job preparation and system setup, all of which have costs associated with them.


Then there are printing costs, which are the largest “cost blocks,” Haller says, including the cost of the material, the actual printing system and consumables costs. Post-processing work, such as stress relief and heat treatment and removing the part from the base plate, also represents additional costs.


“When comparing costs,” Haller adds, “it’s really important to consider costs along the whole value chain and even the total cost of ownership of a certain component.”


While it’s no secret that AM can be more expensive than traditional manufacturing, there is value to be leveraged, including in the lifecycle phase of an application – shortening product development time while optimizing manufacturing processes. Part performance can be increased as can the product lifetime.


Furthermore, lead times and company image can get a value boost by utilizing AM. But, for some, freedom of design might be the biggest value add.


“With additive manufacturing, we always talk about two main advantages,” Haller says. “The first one is the freedom of design – you can now build very complex geometries. You can use it to integrate different functions into a certain component, and you can use it to customize different components. All of this allows you to build completely new and complex designs.”


For example, healthcare-related products, such as patient-specific medical applications are possible with AM. Combining complex geometries, customization and functional integration produces a “very innovative additive manufacturing part,” Haller says.


As for the second advantage, Haller says AM offers the idea of “freedom of production.” This is evident in that the process offers flexible production volume, flexible production time and flexible production location options.


“This enables you to run very small and economic production runs, so now you can build one part or a thousand parts at the same part cost,” Haller explains. “You can use additive manufacturing to change your production strategy from local to global.


“You can use it change from ‘just in time’ to ‘on-demand,’” he continues. “And now, you can go from building the same component over and over again to building many different components and applications in the same build job.”


Technical and economic considerations help determine whether a customer should use traditional or additive manufacturing processes to produce parts.



Keeping score

Haller’s team uses what they refer to as the “AM Score Card.” On the left side of the card are components of the technical fit, including the size of the part, the material used to make it and the quality requirements.


On the right side are components of the economic fit, including the complexity of the part, cost and value add. A score is given to each component, so if it’s found that a part’s size is not compatible with AM, there would be no need to evaluate the materials and quality components.


A part can look quite unattractive on areas of the score card, yet still be a good fit for AM. For example, it could turn out that complexity is low and cost is high, but a significant value add can turn the tables.


“You can do a valuation for a high number of parts and especially for very diverse parts,” he says. “Really look at different ideas from different departments. Look at polymer and metal parts if you think that’s possible to get a very broad picture.”



Trending topics

As 2017 lifts off, the industrial laser community looks up to Industry 4.0, additive manufacturing and new laser sources

by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief


A bird’s eye view of Fabtech 2016 would reveal just how expansive the metals fabricating market is. Yet, year after year, the big picture is the same: Thousands of attendees, hundreds of booths and a seemingly unending supply of products. To discover what’s truly new in the market, the 30,000-ft. view doesn’t suffice.


To get a better look at what’s shaping the industry in the New Year, the editors at Shop Floor Lasers got up close and personal. We spoke to various laser manufacturers at the event and discovered the trends and challenges that are driving change.


With our ear to the ground, we heard that Industry 4.0 will grow in its adoption as will additive manufacturing. We also got insight surrounding new laser sources and their potential in the marketplace. 



Big data developments

When talking about the new developments emerging in the industrial laser space, one might balk at the inclusion of Industry 4.0. The buzzword isn’t new and neither are many of the tools being produced to adopt it. What is new, however, is how the proliferation of fiber lasers is essentially forcing fabricators to embrace it.   


“The key driver of today’s metal fabrication industry can be found in the pace of technological change and the attendant cost savings associated with it,” says Bob St. Aubin, president of Bystronic Inc. “With the introduction of the fiber laser and its ever-increasing power output, the metal fabricator is increasingly able to flexibly produce larger volumes of high-quality blanks faster than ever before.


“But, as human operators have been hard pressed to keep up with this higher output, full automation, including robotic part sorting and stacking, has become a requirement to maintain the efficiency of this initial operation,” he continues. “As more parts have become available to move through the factory, more efficient technologies in the setup and automation of downstream operations, like forming and welding, have also become critical. However, new technology can only reach its maximum potential when it’s monitored and when data is controlled and communicated using the powerful software tools that have become available with the implementation of Industry 4.0.”


So as productivity increases with the introduction of new equipment, fabricators are less hesitant to consider Industry 4.0 in their facilities. Initially, some of the barriers to adoption seemed as simple as not fully understanding what Industry 4.0 entails. Stefan Colle, laser product sales manager at LVD Strippit, echoes that sentiment when talking about the strategy moving forward.


Industry 4.0 isn’t a trend; it’s reality, and we see it fundamentally changing the way production is handled,” he explains. “But, there’s still a lot of confusion around Industry 4.0 – what it is, what it means and how to take advantage of the new opportunities it promises. We need to get beyond the terminology to educate customers – large and small fabricators alike – about the real benefits behind Industry 4.0.” 


He explains that LVD has espoused Industry 4.0 solutions for some time, introducing products that tie into the overall philosophy. The company’s Touch-i4 tablet, as just one example, remotely monitors LVD laser machines, looking constantly at their efficiency and job activities.


To further maximize the benefits that come with Industry 4.0, Colle says that LVD delivers extensive offline programming that can be fully automated with the company’s CADMan-Job software. By integrating the software system with the front office and shop floor, users can easily generate and manage jobs all while experiencing increased throughput – a picture perfect example of how Industry 4.0 streamlines the workflow.


A better understanding of why manufacturers and fabricators need Industry 4.0 is the first step to adoption. The second step involves an understanding of the data and insight that can be captured by new systems. Michael Atchley, product line director at nLight Inc. takes the next step behind the scenes to explain how these systems do what is expected of them.


“From our perspective, as power source suppliers, sophisticated tool manufacturers are definitely wanting to push for greater performance,” Atchley explains. “We ask the OEMs what their customers are looking for in terms of factory optimization, and we work to provide the appropriate software (APIs) and hardware hooks to enable them.”


Today’s laser source interfaces and electronics can support the needs of basic fabrication. However, if a fabricator is striving to build a more efficient factory, the discussion must move from “simple hardware interfaces to more value-adding digital and programming options, having processors built into your systems that can communicate with factory automation software,” Atchley says.


“We see customers wanting to use the network to know if their fiber laser tool is fully operational, if it is running efficiently and if there are signals triggering an opportunity for preventative maintenance,” Atchley continues. “We have found more and more users trying to figure out how to connect their systems for greater value.”


For Atchley and the team at nLight, Industry 4.0 places more responsibilities on the equipment manufacturers. No longer are they expected to only execute on laser cutting or welding capabilities; they’re expected to help customers gain productivity across the board.


“We’ve built our products in accordance with the productivity and connectivity customers require in today’s marketplace,” he says. “We recognize the importance of supporting the customer’s requirements for greater efficiency and higher uptime.”



The 3-D approach

According to a new report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 3-D printing, aka additive manufacturing (AM), “is crossing from a period of hype and experimentation into one of rapid maturation.” In years past, the manufacturing industry has kept a close eye on the technology, watching as it progressed from a tool for prototyping to one capable of producing end products. Its progress can be seen via the rise in global spending on both desktop and industrial equipment. In 2015, spending on printers reached $11 billion, and by 2019, according to IDC Research Inc., it’s forecasted to hit $27 billion. 


“A proliferation of new-entry printer makers are offering faster, cheaper and more sophisticated 3-D printers on both the personal desktop and industrial printer markets,” PwC reports. “And, as printers expand the portfolio of inks that can be used – most notably metal, ceramics and graphene – 3-D printing will likely continue its march to compete with conventional manufacturing technologies, especially as the expectations and needs for just-in-time and customized products rise. Quite simply, 3-D printing is becoming mainstreamed.”


When looking deeper at the increased applications for AM when producing metal products, Christof Lehner, general manager of the Trumpf Inc. Laser Technology Center, has high hopes. 


“Additive manufacturing has received a lot of attention in recent years, and the technologies will only become more exciting as we move forward,” Lehner explains. “In metal printing, we have already seen improvements in build rates, system offerings and usability. As this continues, AM will appeal to an ever-increasing market and eventually, we expect it to become a cornerstone of manufacturing.”


Likewise, Rick Neff, manager market development at Cincinnati Inc., sees a bright future for AM. He prefaces his positive forecast with an explanation for why the technology’s progress has been slow. He chalks up some of the hesitance to misconceptions that have been placed on AM.   


The interesting thing about additive manufacturing is that there’s a lot of hype,” he says. “The industry talks about the hype cycle in that there are different cycles of hype that keep coming and going. The problem is that some people have been given the idea that it’s just for prototyping parts or making small fragile parts. But, the reality is that it can be used for making really good, durable parts.”


AM does have limitations. While he believes that it will grow in adoption, Neff admits replacing conventional methods of machining or laser cutting parts isn’t in the cards for AM.


“If someone is looking at making a sheet metal part, it’s faster and easier to laser cut and then bend it on a press brake instead of trying to 3-D print it,” Neff explains, adding that the cost for 3-D printing can sometimes be prohibitive, as well.


“Additive manufacturing, however, gives us another tool for making things, and it will be worked into the overall way we make things. It will have a role in many manufacturing plants in the future.” 


Neff adds that the key factor in adopting 3-D printing lies in applications knowledge. While developments in the technology have been seemingly slow, manufacturers and fabricators were simply looking for the right applications to be able to bring the technology on board.


“It’s a combination of finding the right application and having the applications knowledge to be able to get consistent productivity and parts out of the machine,” he says.


General Electric serves as a good example of how the wait-and-see approach can pay off. An article published by MIT Technology Review says that the company is now making parts for a new aircraft engine leveraging AM. The part quantities and required accuracy and integrity turned out to be a perfect fit for AM when compared to other methods.


“GE chose the additive process for manufacturing the nozzles because it uses less material than conventional techniques,” the MIT article explained. “That reduces GE’s production costs and, because it makes the parts lighter, yields significant fuel savings for airlines. Conventional techniques would require welding about 20 small pieces together, a labor-intensive process in which a high percentage of the material ends up being scrapped.


“Instead, the part will be built from a bed of cobalt-chromium powder. A computer-controlled laser shoots pinpoint beams onto the bed to melt the metal alloy in the desired areas, creating 20-micrometer-thick layers one by one. The process is a faster way to make complex shapes because the machines can run around the clock. And AM in general conserves material because the printer can handle shapes that eliminate unnecessary bulk and create them without the typical waste.”


As adoption swells, companies like nLight are positioning themselves to be a player in the AM space. Atchley says the company is targeting the next generation of AM tools, where the laser source helps differentiate the overall solution. Higher processing speeds, greater part quality and lower processing costs will most likely be the focus of that next generation.


“We still see its primary adoption in high-end aerospace applications as well as in some automotive applications”, Atchley says, adding that the technology’s current sweet spot lies in what he describes as lower-volume, higher-mix projects. “We're also seeing some interesting things with multiple laser sources working together in a common tool. There are definitely a few trends that are helping to push the technology to greater adoption.”


So while some companies are still in a holding pattern before jumping onto the 3-D wave, the technology has definitely made a home for itself in the metals fabricating industry. For now, high-end, high-tolerance production settings are where most benefits will be found.



Source of interest

For some – if not many – in the fabricating industry, the physics that drive laser processing is hard to comprehend. Fortunately, reaping the benefits of laser technologies doesn’t require a degree in physics. Also fortunate is the constant expansion of how lasers are used in fabricating operations. Like each year before it, 2017 is delivering a new wave of developments in laser processing, including direct-diode technology among others. 


“Examples of this trend are the deployment of the tri-focal laser in the automotive industry, which delivers three individual beams to the workpiece, and the wobble head now fully deployed in numerous welding applications, including joining of dissimilar metals,” says Bryce Samson, director of sales North America at IPG Photonics. “These are examples of the trend toward offering a more tailored solution to the problems industry is facing.”


To bring additional solutions to laser users, Mazak Optonics Corp. used the Fabtech 2014 stage to unveil a new tube laser cutting machine. With direct-diode laser technology at the heart of the machine, attention for the VCL Tube Laser was high. Two years later, Mazak is experiencing the same level of interest in yet another machine grounded in direct-diode laser (DDL) technology. The company’s Optiplex DDL, introduced at Fabtech Las Vegas, marks a new wave of laser sources emerging in the marketplace.


There are several areas where DDL has made advancements over CO2, fiber and disk lasers – the first is the energy efficiency of the laser. For decades, CO2 ruled the roost, but as most fabricators know, fiber has unseated CO2 as the go-to laser cutting technology. To determine DDL’s role moving forward, one must start by looking at the benefits it brings to the cutting table. In addition to the energy efficiency, edge quality is another area that the laser technology will excel in.    

“Cut performance is notably improved with DDL technology as the wavelength and beam shape characteristics are different than fiber and disk lasers,” says Al Bohlen, president at Mazak. “These characteristics deliver a much superior edge quality not yet seen on fiber and disk lasers and at speeds that, in many cases, are faster.”

As a company that has established itself as first to market with DDL sources, Mazak continues to invest in proprietary technology. Plans for the future include expanding power levels and offerings in all ranges of the company’s products.

Trumpf’s Lehner agrees that DDL is an exciting technology coming onto the scene. He says, however, that fiber lasers will still remain on top in terms of overall laser cutting capabilities.


“Direct-diode technology is rapidly improving and will soon be the laser of choice in many applications,” he says. “Short wavelengths, high brightness in compact packages at competitive cost will further increase the attractiveness of laser applications. However, we also know there is never just one choice when it comes to laser processing.”


LVD Strippit’s Colle doubles down on that sentiment.


“At this point, there are no signs or real evidence of a ‘one micrometer wavelength laser’ that will cause DDL or any other technology to become the laser source of choice over the fiber laser technology LVD is currently employing,” Colle says. “In fact, the quality and efficiencies of fiber laser technology continue to evolve and this makes us believe we have not yet reached the pinnacle of fiber’s capabilities.”


Working off of the idea that DDL is a cost-effective method for various laser processing applications, nLight’s Atchley says that the most successful metal fabricators and manufacturers will have the complete portfolio of laser sources, causing fiber and DDL to stand side by side on the manufacturing floor. Panasonic’s investment in newly acquired TeraDiode underscores the confidence that many have for the relatively new laser source.        


“The key is having an appreciation for which laser technology should be used for what applications,” says Atchley. “We all understand that CO2 used to be the workhorse for metal cutting and that fiber lasers have largely displaced them due to advantages in speed and efficiency. Fiber laser sources have a big advantage in terms of optical brightness. With that said, the power consumption of DDL sources leads it to be attractive for low brightness applications like cladding and hardening.”


As is true with any new technology, fabricators will need to understand the benefits and limitations and how they play into their specific application needs. Atchley says this has been the case with pico-second lasers, diode-pumped lasers, disk lasers, CO2 lasers and other types of gas lasers.


“There are numerous pros and cons for different laser sources,” Atchley says. “You get good mode quality with fiber, and it allows you to power scale to high powers reliably. And those benefits work well, not only in terms of the price for a processed part, but also for the exceptional uptime you can expect from a fiber laser source.”


Until new materials come onto the scene that might call for a new or different laser source, fiber is here to stay. For many, direct-diode’s complementary role to fiber is a comforting position for it to take, considering how many companies have already invested in fiber or are on the cusp of investing in it.


Bystronic Inc.

IPG Photonics Corp.

LVD Strippit

Mazak Optonics Corp.

nLight Inc.

Trumpf Inc. 


The Road Ahead

Automotive manufacturers look to new innovations in 3-D printing to better leverage the technology
by Abbe Miller, editor-in-chief

It’s official: 3-D printing has captivated the world. It’s gotten to the point where individuals can purchase a home model for as little as a few hundred dollars. And it’s also gotten to the point where Local Motors, an American motor vehicle manufacturing company focused on low-volume production, says it will offer a car for sale next year that’s made on-demand with a 3-D printer. Billed as a low-speed neighborhood vehicle, the cars can be printed in a way that allows customers to customize colors and trim.

Despite the major strides, there is still much anticipation in terms of how 3-D printing can serve the greater automotive community. Challenges currently facing the industry include the large work envelope necessary for automotive manufacturing, the limited number of metals that can be used and the cost of those powdered metals.

Historical usage

Although 3-D printing is just now drawing attention from the general public, it’s been in use in the manufacturing world for decades. Referred to as additive manufacturing, or AM, the process of building components in layers with the gradual depositing of material has been used for prototyping and in short production runs for some time. Since the 1980s, in fact, Ford Motor Co. has produced prototypes of cylinder heads, brake rotors and rear axles via AM.
Other than its use for prototyping and in small production runs, the technology hadn’t made much leeway with the traditional metals used in automotive applications. According to a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission titled “Additive Manufacturing Technology: Potential Implications for U.S. Manufacturing Competitiveness,” that trend might be changing. The report states that the auto industry is “increasingly applying the technology to metals, with a focus on aluminum alloys, to construct lightweight vehicles.”

And although the specific metals aren’t named in the U.S. Trade Commission’s report, further adoption of AM can be seen at Daimler AG, which funded the development of a laser fusing machine that uses powdered metals to additively manufacture components for the carmaker’s vehicles and engines.

Printing details of the Strati 3-D printed car, the world's first 3-D printed electric car. Produced by Local Motors in collaboration with the Association For Manufacturing Technology, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cincinnati Inc., the carbon-fiber car was printed and assembled during the week of IMTS 2014.


Time for titanium

The challenge with using AM in traditional metal applications – like those needed for the automotive industry – is inherent to the process. Additive manufacturing can happen through laser sintering, where powdered metals are heated just below their melting point, and through direct laser melting, where the powdered metals are taken to their melting point.

The former method requires a downstream step to compress and close up the resulting pores that come from the AM process while the latter can create stress and cracking in the material. Currently, neither have been ideal for the automotive industry’s stringent standards for strength and safety.     

So although classic steels might not be ready for AM – because of the degradation to the material or the downstream processing required – titanium is proving to be an appropriate fit. With its low density, high strength and corrosion resistance, the material has a strong appeal in the automotive industry.

According to a report from Deloitte titled “3-D opportunity for the automotive industry: Additive manufacturing hits the road,” that appeal comes from “[titanium’s] ability to make lightweight, high-performance parts.” The powdered titanium doesn’t come cheap, but strides are being made to reduce those costs.

In terms of AM, the use of titanium is limited because “the metal powder produced through current methods is expensive, costing about $200 to $400 per kilogram,” the Deloitte report relayed. “U.K.-based Metalysis has developed a one-step method to produce titanium powder, with the potential of reducing the cost by as much as 75 percent. Jaguar Land Rover is looking to partner with Metalysis to use the low-cost titanium powder in AM.”

Watch a video from Metalysis, which gives an overview of the process to produce powder titanium.

One-step process

The goal at Metalysis is to position itself “at the intersection of two powerful fundamental trends that will reshape industrial manufacturing: powder metallurgy and additive manufacturing.” The company goes on to admit, however, that traditional powder metallurgy is an expensive, complex and a niche market. But it’s working to change that.  

“Metalysis has proven that its electrolytic process can transform natural rutile sands directly into titanium metal powder in a single step, which could be even more disruptive. Rutile is a naturally occurring titanium ore present in beach sands and is a highly cost effective feed stock for metal powder production. Metalysis developed the process itself and has patented it.”

The cost of manufacturing high-purity titanium had previously been a major barrier for adoption, but by cutting the number of production steps, Metalysis is making the material more financially approachable. In doing so, it will be able to compete with other performance alloys. For automotive and industrial applications, it could displace certain types of stainless steel and nickel-based alloys.

According to the company, “another significant issue in [AM] for metals is the gradual degradation of metal powders during processing as a result of the powder bed being exposed to oxygen and other contaminants. There is large potential demand for cost-effective methods of reconditioning metal powders. Metalysis’ technology is particularly suited to remove surface oxidized coatings.”

With companies like Metalysis working to overcome one of the challenges behind AM, the future looks bright for the technology. The next order of business, however, will be to unlock more material options to give the technology a broader appeal.  

Local Motors


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