When describing companies that have been successful at leveraging the benefits of additive manufacturing, Dr. Hans Langer, founder and CEO of EOS GmbH, asserts that the most important element is how they approached the project.
“Mindset was most important,” he said, describing one successful company, adding: Only by thinking differently can project teams work through the necessary steps “to develop a process to make a production part that is really innovative.”
Dr. Langer was speaking at the EOS North America User Day at IMTS, where the company, a pioneer Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) technology, and its customers explored the challenge and promise of industrial additive manufacturing. EOS (for Electro Optical Systems) is based in Krailling, Germany; its U.S. headquarters is in Novi, Mich.
“I think most people think they buy an EOS machine and then they have a new way of manufacturing,” Dr. Langer explained. What they cannot imagine is that it takes a fresh look at their production processes--as well as sometimes significant time and money--to work through what he sees as the three drivers of strategic additive manufacturing success: identifying the right application, understanding materials science, and integrating additive manufacturing into the conventional production process.
Addressing the three drivers, he said, helps companies create an additive manufacturing approach that transforms not only the production process, but potentially the business.
Choosing the Right Additive Manufacturing Application
“I think it is a key to find the right applications, and most people have difficulty finding the right applications,” Dr. Langer said. That’s why, when EOS works with a customer, it reviews the entire production chain--including what kind of components or parts they are making and how they are making them--with an eye toward identifying where additive manufacturing can add value. The answer isn’t always obvious.
For example, he described a plastics injection molding company that was looking to leverage additive manufacturing. A review of the company’s production process indicated that reducing the cool-down period of the tool would have the biggest effect. The solution was to redesign the tool so that it was hollow and could hold cooling liquid--a design that could only be produced with additive manufacturing.
By rethinking the process with additive manufacturing in mind, the company transformed not only the tool and the production process, Langer said. “We were able to increase the output by a factor of two, potentially doubling the size of the business without a major investment.”
Another earlier example of additive manufacturing success, which might also be among the most advanced, involved a complete transition to digital and 3-D printed production.
In the late 90s, a 200-employee German blood centrifuge manufacturer, Andreas Hettich GmbH & Co. KG, of Tuttlingen, reimagined the entire process of its business and made the leap to 100% additive production.
In this case, Dr. Langer said, the business owner had always viewed conventional manufacturing as a hindrance and so was predisposed to overhauling the production process to take advantage of additive manufacturing.
The company redesigned the centrifuge, which had been assembled from 30 injection molded parts, by integrating "all these injection-molded parts into one laser-sintered component,” he said.
“[They have] no tooling anymore; just a digital database and printing. They have 20 larger printers and they have transferred their conventional business into a digital business.”
Understanding Additive Manufacturing Materials Science
Also critical to successful deployment of strategic additive manufacturing is to better understand “what happens in the machine, what is going on in this process,” as the machine builds the part using only a laser and the powder material.
“It’s physics and very complex,” Dr. Langersaid. And it sometimes yields surprising results.
“We have seen that we can create parts in our machines that are, from a material property point of view, not possible with a conventional manufacturing process,” Dr. Langer explained. For example, “today, we can make aluminum with the strength of steel--and you do not do this by [using] steel or aluminum powder in the machine.”
Similarly, he added, the company has been working with some materials that, from a process point of view, could “change the plastics game substantially.”
A Temple, Texas-based EOS subsidiary, EOS Materials, also known as Advanced Laser Materials (ALM), produces and blends polymer powder for EOS systems and other powder-based AM technologies.
Integrating Additive Manufacturing into the Conventional Production Process
Similar to finding the right application is the need to identify where the additive manufacturing technology fits within a conventional process.
“You should not think that industrial 3-D printing is replacing conventional manufacturing,” Dr. Langer said. “I personally have not seen a real industrial additive part that has not been processed with conventional technologies.”
The example of the plastics injection molding company’s hollow tool applies here, in that the additive application did not replace a conventional production process, but only one part of it.
In another example, which Dr. Langer was not at liberty to discuss in detail, he said “imagine there is a part with the value of a few thousand dollars, and this part is part of a complete system, which is selling for millions of dollars. And this little part, a few thousand dollars, can change the business of the many-million-dollar system.”
“There might be a tiny part in a car; it could be an engine component, and it is changing the whole economics of this car--fuel consumption, for instance. We are working very closely with some manufacturers, and they can imagine that they can generate big innovation with our technology in the engine business. And if you do this, then all of a sudden, you have a tiny additive part in a conventional care, and it’s a totally different business for the car maker.”
The Future of Additive Manufacturing
In understanding and applying the three drivers of strategic additive manufacturing, the key word is "strategic." In tracing the history and future of the technology, Dr. Langer and the EOS team described a trajectory from its use as a rapid prototyping, to its use today in pre-production, to its integration into the conventional manufacturing processes by 2020.
Along the way, companies will implement additive manufacturing in a variety of ways. Many will continue to harvest the technology’s “low-hanging fruit” of reducing product development costs or swapping a 3-D printed part for a conventionally built part. Others will pursue increasingly strategic implementations that lead to digital manufacturing and a reconfigured value chain.
The trend leads toward the latter, according to Dr. Langer. “Our customers are prepared for strong investments in this direction, to really changing their world of what they supply and how they supply it,” he said. “The supply chain will change dramatically, so today you have a part… and in the future you will not have this part—not this specific one. But there will be a combination [of parts] that you will do differently.”