About Me

My photo
Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Thursday 30 November 2017

A Timely Reality Check Landed in my Inbox Last Night

HP’s PR company, or at least one of them, sent me a press release last night. There is nothing particularly unusual in that activity but, even as I opened the email, entitled “Brooks, HP and Superfeet Are Partnering to Bring the Most Personalized Running Footwear to Life” I had a sense of deja-vu. As it turned out, the release was from Brooks Running Company and being distributed on behalf of HP due to the collaboration between the two companies. Skimming the press announcement, I’ll be honest, there may have been a couple of eye-rolls.

You may have seen the announcement of HP’s FitStation platform earlier this autumn/Fall across various tech media platforms, maybe even some 3D printing media, even though 3D printing only supplies a minimal (some may even say token) contribution to FitStation. Rather, the emphasis is very much on personalization and customization, enabled by 3D digital data capture techniques.

The concept of personalized footwear for high performance sports footwear is not new — in general or across the 3D printing industry. Nike’s personalized, part-3D printed football cleats — dating back to 2013 with numerous iterations since —were among the earliest. Reebok, Under Armour and others have subsequently followed suit with varied propositions for customized footwear for improved performance. Other footwear companies also emerged linking 3D printing footwear applications to improved comfort. I’m thinking of SOLS, but for just over a year, this company has changed direction the company’s focus is now on the digital data — its capture and translation to meaningful information.

It seems the economics of personalized footwear enabled by 3D printing are not that great. Some might point to the collaboration between Adidas and Carbon, which does illustrate a breakthrough in using 3D printing for high volume production of footwear, however in this case there is no personalization — essentially the antithesis of FitStation, the link being ‘footwear’ and, tenuously, 3D printing. I use the word ‘tenuously’ with intent here, because actually, the HP FitStation platform, as employed by Brooks depends most heavily “on a state-of-the-art DESMA polyurethane injection-molding machine” for production.

So reading the announcement from Brooks Running Company late last night, I got a couple of reality slaps:

Companies compete and they fight for market share and sometimes they use “me to” mechanisms to do that – whether that involves behind the scenes processes and/or application(s).

Another reality is that companies will work with the best tools for the job to maximize success and increase that market share and 3D printing often doesn’t make the grade. Like in this announcement from Brooks Running Co, in which there wasn’t a single mention of 3D printing (just 3D scanning and the importance of 3D digital technology). After initially wondering why I had been sent the PR (in this regard) I ended up being quite happy that they did — I needed this dose of reality. 3D printing technology is improving all the time, but for this application it’s not the best fit. Moreover, other production techniques (traditional or otherwise) are improving at the same time, like DESMA. Marketing language aside, no new “footwear” application is the same either — whether the focus is on personalization, comfort, high volumes, economics or any combination thereof — they each deserve to be assessed on their own merits and value to the end users. This is how applications develop and the real or perceived “me too” aspect is largely irrelevant.

I quite like being slapped in the face by reality from time to time — it’s a good thing, I think.

And with all that said, it seems right to take a closer look at what Brooks Running Company is doing, namely partnering with HP and Superfeet to leverage the FitStation platform and Brooks Run Signature to introduce a performance running shoe based on an individual’s unique biomechanics. FitStation is said to be a hardware and software platform that combines 3D foot scanning with dynamic gait analysis and foot pressure measurements that offers customers in-depth analysis to identify the unique motion path of the runner’s body and information about the desired running experience in order to create a one-of-a-kind holistic digital profile of an individual that combines personalized fit, biomechanics and experience.

The stated aim is to make the shoes available via special order through select retail partners beginning June 2018.

Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks Running Company commented further on the aim and intent: “Brooks is committed to providing the fit, feel and ride each runner wants. The ability to give an individual a personalized shoe based on his or her unique biomechanics is a game changer. It is a compelling offering for the runner who is interested in tip-of-the-spear technology and a totally tuned experience. As part of our focus on reinventing performance running, we will continue to push the envelope to bring runners innovations that help them uniquely tailor their run.”

I’m not a runner, so I can’t comment from that perspective, but I do look forward to keeping tabs on this next year and hearing user feedback.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Who is adira & How are they Competing with GE Additive?

There has been a whole swathe of news and information coming out of Formnext powered by TCT, which is taking place in Frankfurt this week. One of the strangest stories I happened upon, is a weird coincidence, and my initial thoughts on it are recapped here.

Well, some people might call it a coincidence!

On Tuesday morning, on the first day of the show, one of the stands I walked past first was adira. I was still finding my bearings on the show floor, which this year was across two floors, four storeys apart. (For the record, I never found them). Relatively speaking, it was one of the small / medium sized stands at Formnext and I’d say 80% of it was taken up by a very large machine. I did a double take and this time noticed the strapline on the bridge platform that allowed visitors to see inside the machine, which read: “The World’s Largest Metal Part Printer!”

I remember thinking ‘that’s a bold claim’ (and tweeted something to that effect) my second thought was, who is adira? I had no idea. But tucked it away to follow up later, because Tuesday was soon to become a whirlwind of back to back press conferences and meetings — with not a few escalators and near accidents involved in the to-ing and the fro-ing.

GE Additive Press Conference at Formnext 2017 - Photo Credit: GE Additive.  

In fact, the first press conference of the first day of Formnext was hosted by GE Additive. They had this prime time slot to reveal – to a sprawling crowd of press and visitors – the first beta version metal additive manufacturing (AM) machine of the Project A.T.L.A.S.* programme, which GE is referring to as its “meter-class, laser powder-bed fusion machine.” This is because the machine that was launched at Formnext has an XY build plate of 1.1 m x 1.1 m with a Z axis up to 30 cm. But this is just the beginning, according to Mohammad Ehteshami Vice President and General Manager of GE Additive and scalability is the key here, the GE team were keen to point out that this can go much bigger in the Z axis. This scalability is courtesy of the process set-up, whereby the powder bed is moved across the build plate to deliver the material layers.

The machine is branded as a Concept Laser machine, developed and produced in Lichtenfels under the direction of Frank Herzog the CEO and Founder of Concept Laser, now a GE company, since GE Additive acquired a majority share-holding (75%, I believe) last year. The Lichtenfels facility is all set to increase in size and capacity to accommodate the Project ATLAS programme.

At no point did I hear any of the GE team refer to the ATLAS beta machine as “The world’s largest ….” Although, with the consistent emphasis on the Formnext machine’s scalability, it was certainly implied.

Throughout the announcement, adira was still buzzing away in my brain, and once the GE press conference ended, I took the opportunity to corner a few of the people I knew that were also present to ask if they’d seen the adira machine, or even knew who adira was? Invariably the answers were no and no. I kept asking the questions wherever I ended up that day of other trusted contacts. Nothing concrete — and more than a few raised eyebrows at my line of questioning and the reason behind it. So come Wednesday morning (was that just yesterday?) and I was on a mission, and I headed straight for the adira stand to find out more.

The machine is called AC — addcreator — and the process, I noticed this time, is called Tiled Laser Melting, a registered trademark. Also prominent on the machine were two new poster additions – one large one stating “SOLD” (to Poly-Shape) and a smaller one highlighting a partnership with Siemens, which looked very much like an endorsement, in reference to the process controls and software.

I first sat down to speak with Francisco Cardoso Pinto, Executive Vice Chairman of adira, and after introducing myself together with a brief backgrounder on why I was interested, he laughed and said “Press! I have to be very careful what I say then.” I tried to reassure him I just wanted to understand about the company and the machine and how it fit into the AM industry.

He told me that adira is headquartered in Canelas in Portugal, with a 60+ year history in sheet metal forming machinery. Since 2000, the company has developed and commercialized laser machining solutions and three years ago began R&D into additive manufacturing. The company has been flying low under the radar, but the AC concept was apparently introduced last year at the Euroblech Hannover event, and had press coverage from TCT Magazine in November 2016, when it was presented as a conceptual platform, but it does a nice job of explaining the process.  

Adira is claiming the AC is a production machine, that the company holds global patents and its primary IP is on the environmental controls of the the powder delivery, to ensure conditions are optimal to control spatter and prevent oxidation, according to Tiago B Faro; adira’s Technical Director. Francisco passed me over to Tiago as quickly as possible, with plenty of instructions delivered in Portuguese before he spoke to me.

But now AC is a commercial entity. And, perhaps the most pertinent point to note is how remarkably similar it sounds to the way the GE machine works.

When I asked GE Additive’s Comms Leader, Neil Siddons, about this, he acknowledged he knew of the adira machine on the show floor, but would not be drawn on anything further.

There’s definitely more to come from this story — I certainly haven’t got to the bottom of it.

It could be a coincidence, certainly. A massive one — quite literally. Of course, there are plenty of historical precedents, even in 3D printing land, and further afield, that support the same “things” being developed independently in different parts of the world. It may well turn out to be the case here and I’m over-thinking this?

*Project A.T.L.A.S (Additive Technology Large Area System).

Thursday 9 November 2017

Inside Siemens Energy & Power Additive Manufacturing Facility & More

Siemens is a company that is serious about additive manufacturing (AM).

Indeed, readers may have read an article I wrote earlier this year to that effect, with some details and thoughts about this huge company’s expansive push into the AM industry through various channels. As I mentioned in the introduction to that article, as a single global entity Siemens is vast (its preliminary 2017 global revenue has just been quoted at €83 billion, up 4% on last year) and thus can be a hard one to wrap your head around, even when you break the company down into its self-defined divisions and different geographic locations.

So last month, when I was invited by the Siemens Energy and Power Division (Siemens EPD) to visit its dedicated facility in Finspang, Sweden, it provided a fantastic opportunity to attempt some head-wrapping and to get a firm grasp on some of its dedicated AM activities! I attended the event along with a large global press contingent from as far afield as Mexico, Dubai, Indonesia, Nigeria as well as Europe with representatives from Spain, Austria and the UK (ie me!). These members of the press represented a broad spectrum of general, governmental and technology-focused digital and/or print publications, but there were no other dedicated 3D printing or AM members of the press present, which struck me as rather odd … and initially unnerving.

 This trip involved another ungodly alarm call, for an early flight, via Amsterdam to the tiniest airport I have ever been through, namely Linkoping (pronounced Linch-a-ping, I learned after making an idiot of myself and pronouncing the “k” and the “o”) in the East of Sweden. From Linkoping I was efficiently transported to our collective base in Norkkoping, home to a respected and digital tech focused university, sharing a transfer with Amy Pempel, Senior Communications Consultant and Aymeric Sarrazin, SVP Controls and Digitalization; both of whom had flown in for the event from Siemens Power Services Division in Orlando, Florida. It was not until the following day, however, that I visited Finspang, where Siemens has a huge facility (4 square kilometres) dedicated to the development and production of gas turbines.

Our hosts had organised a digital presentation and dinner reception for us the evening prior to the site tour and it was a rich cultural mix of fine food and fine conversation overlooking the Motala ström river — the cultural mix being a courtesy of our location, our hosts and the diners at our table. From Siemens, I shared a table with Vladimir Navrotsky, AM Technology and Innovation Manager and Thorbjörn Fors, CEO Business Unit Distributed Generation and Compression along with Ana Hernando and Livdia Montes. So we had a Russian national, living in Sweden; a Swedish national commuting to Germany; two Spanish nationals — one living in Madrid and the other in Barcelona — and a Brit, mid Brexit. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, as it happened, even considering nothing was off-topic and the obvious focus on digitalisation and AM, was supplemented with intelligent and diverse conversations on family, politics and religion from myriad perspectives. It was a truly wonderful and memorable evening.

As well as getting a taster for what we would see the following day at the Finspang facility and an early snapshot of the real passion Vladimir has for additive tech, I also learned a great deal about the region we were in. If you don’t have the time and inclination to humour me here because this doesn’t capture your interest the way it did mine, and you just want the low down on Siemens and AM feel free to jump ahead a few paragraphs, but I found the history of this region fascinating and believe it is worth sharing. 

This province of Sweden has a long and impressive industrial heritage dating back more than 650 years, a time span that has witnessed continued industrial evolution. Textiles was the first sector to make its mark here, and the region was renowned for producing cloth and uniforms for armies all over the world. Paper and pulp factories came later on and then in the 17th century (1627 to be precise) the first canon workshop was established and the production of canons here grew to a peak export capacity of 800 canons per year to the rest of the world, until it ended in 1911 and the workshops became empty.

However, the same favourable geographic features that supported the production of canons — plentiful forests, water and most notably a very deep port (the deepest in Sweden) was also conducive to the production of turbines. In 1913 Staal acquired the empty canon workshops for the production of steam turbines, mostly sold for use in marine environments. Staal became ABB, then later Alstom Power, until the facility was acquired by Siemens in 2003. Steam turbines were produced at the site for 95 years although gas turbines were introduced in 1945 (then available in three varieties: “small, medium and huge”) for aerospace applications.

Today only gas turbines are produced in Finspang, a city with 21,500 inhabitants; but the region is still one that exhibits great industrial strength and illustrates the power of regeneration and innovation. In 2017, the largest employer here is SAAB  with ~6000 employees, followed by Siemens with its 3300 employees, although based on some of the analysis today this might change. Of Siemens’ current Finspang staff, approximately 50% of are engineers and around 900 work in the service department (aftermarket). The personnel rosta is also truly international with 40 different nationalities represented I was told, and 21% are women, with the caveat added: “we’re still working on that.”

The Siemens’ Finspang facility is spread across 4 square kilometres with numerous buildings and factories that all contribute to the production, assembly and shipping of its gas turbine models. Even the smallest model, the SGT 300 is a vast and complex machine, and this is scaled up in size and complexity for each model in the gas turbine portfolio, which includes the 400, 500, 600, 700, 750 and 800. Only the SGT 500 / 600 / 700 and 750 models are fully manufactured in Finspang but all are assembled, tested and shipped from there.

To convey some idea of the scale and complexity that I refer to above, the average number of components that make up a gas turbine is 21,000, but that’s an easy thing to register and forget. I’m talking from experience here, people can throw these facts and figures at you and you can take them in, even appreciate the intricacies of the product development and manufacturing involved but the real context, for me, came from seeing them IRL (in terms of scale of the turbines themselves but also the logistics required to deliver the end result), truly understanding their purpose and application, and getting to grips with the environments that they operate in, which are extreme.

Anyway, back to Siemens EPD and the purpose of this event: the banner heading for the press day was “Digitialisation.” This is something Siemens has been pushing for some time.  You could be forgiven for dismissing it as one of those “buzzwords”, right up there with IoT, Industry 4.0 and the 4th Industrial Revolution. However, they are all buzzwords for a reason, because in all likelihood there is no sector — industrial or otherwise —  on which the digital era will not make an impact, whether they embrace it emphatically or are brought along kicking and screaming (most will likely be somewhere in-between). I’ve seen brilliant examples of the former, most recently on this trip to Sweden, and heard frequent anecdotal evidence of the latter, most notably about foundry businesses that are wary of “digitalisation” or related tech as a threat to their business, and indeed very existence. This is not wholly unnatural considering the human condition and fear of change; but in reality it does not have to be this way.

Digitalisation, for a single word it has huge meaning and reach. Narrowing this down, to industrial digitalisation, it is important to state it is not just a buzzword, but offers a connected strategy for manufacturers to make better (more functional) things in a smarter way, and faster, with a traceable digital footprint from concept to end of product life. It is disruptive to the status quo for many manufacturers, but it does not have to be intimidating, as it brings the real potential for progress and evolution.

Siemens software development heritage is foundational to its digitalisation strategy, and intelligent connectivity across the business seems to be the goal, using other tools such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and AM.

For Siemens EPD, AM is just one tool within the digitalisation strategy, but an important one, and it continues to grow in importance year on year. Today the company is using metal AM for Rapid Prototyping, Rapid Manufacturing (serial) and Rapid Repair. Siemens EPD’s first engagement with metal AM was in 2008, according to Vladimir Navrotsky, and the first machine (from EOS) was brought in-house the following year. The original application development centred around a repair solution for turbine burners. We were not allowed to take pictures of the actual burner component, so describing it here probably won’t do it justice. Each one is about 18 inches tall, maybe 6 inches in diameter with complex geometry (cooling channels etc) and a critical functional component in the operation of the turbine, which means each is subjected to the most hostile and aggressive conditions including immense temperatures (over 1000˚) and corrosive fuels that mean it expands and contracts, often in remote locations. The largest SGT 800 model utilises up to 30 burners at one time.

Operating in such hostile conditions has traditionally meant that failure rates were high even with planned maintenance and replacement scheduled on the turbine. Production schedules, using traditional manufacturing methods for the burners were quoted at 44 weeks, so if a burner failed before scheduled replacement, it doesn’t take a genius to work out the downtime, and subsequent costs involved for Siemens EPD customers. It was a recurring problem.

As applications go, this is a demanding one, but Siemens EPD found a real solution and worked in partnership with EOS. When a burner reaches the end of its life or fails, it is the top 20% of the component that is redundant, but the whole component would be discarded and a new one produced as a replacement. However, Siemens has developed a repair process whereby the top 20% of the worn burner is removed and then replaced with additive manufacturing. To achieve this, the EOS machines had to be adapted to accommodate the remaining part of the burner directly below the build plate, precisely aligning it within the machine to add the new tip. Using a nickel based alloy, the part is reconstructed, with an improved chemical composition (it’s been tried and tested to death) and functionality that meets all of the regulatory standards and the ability to withstand another 20-30,000 hours of use. The digital qualification for this comes from specially developed algorithms that monitor every single layer of material and identify any deviation.  And it takes 4 weeks, less than 10% of the traditional production time. This application of AM in and of itself is truly remarkable, I’ve never seen anything like it. And today, all of Siemens EPD burners are repaired this way, on site in Finspang using the adapted EOS M400 platforms – there are four dedicated machines for this application running at full capacity every day.  

That’s not quite the full story, though. This is where the concept of digitalisation comes into sharper focus. Siemens EPD is applying a full digital strategy for its clients in the way it supplies and services its gas turbines. By exploiting VR and AR with its own software applications, it is possible to monitor the burners performance and condition in-situ, remotely and in real time to prevent failure altogether. In this way, the four-week repair process can be scheduled to minimise, even eliminate down time altogether. This is now the only repair and replace service Siemens EPD offers its clients, the old process, which ran in parallel with the AM process for a while, is now completely redundant. And failure rates are now less than 1%.

I know it is just one application, but it is hard to overstate what an important milestone I believe this is for AM in terms of what is possible now and also point, once again, to the vast potential it opens up that is yet to be realised. I’d put this up there with the LEAP Engine nozzle in significance, actually.

However, there is yet more to relay — alongside the four adapted metal EOS machines, in the AM facility in Finspang, stands a fleet of other metal AM machines, also from EOS, but I am reliably informed that the AM team are currently “looking at everything out there.” Some smaller machines are used for product development, prototyping and functional testing parts. Others, the bigger ones, are being used to produce one-off replacement parts and some serial production parts on a regular basis. Volumes are still in the 3-4 figures, nothing that could be considered high, and while we were not specifically told there would be high volumes any time soon, I would be prepared to bet it’s only a matter on time.

The parts that are in production using AM are all typical of what you would expect — complex, often redesigned to improve functionality and consolidate the number of components. Always adding value and increasing efficiency. Jenna Nielsson is the manager of the design team developing new applications specifically for AM. Again, we were not able to take pictures but there were lots of examples of current projects. That said, proportionally, it’s still a tiny number compared to the total number of parts in a complete turbine.

Thus, we return to the fact that always needs restated — AM is not a replacement technology, nor will it ever be. It’s a value adding process and often a cost reducing one – over the life time of the product, if not in cost per part. This particular issue raised its head more than once over the Siemens press conference. A few of the attendees did not seem able to differentiate here and persistently asked about the costs, despite patient and consistent explanations from Siemens personnel that the costs (hardware and per part) are secondary to the value AM can bring to its customers over the lifetime of the product – both in time and £$€. 

I came away from this trip truly inspired by what I had seen and heard, and it made me really happy to have witnessed a company, full of passion and not a little (deserved) pride opening up about its real — and realistic — relationship with AM, within a digital framework. Rather than wittering on endlessly about having an AM roadmap / strategy with some loose talking points that constantly highlight the challenges of AM (like some other OEM users I don’t care to mention by name), Siemens is getting on and implementing theirs and periodically sharing the successful results of doing so, as it did in Finspang.

Since my return I’ve been trying to think of other company visits that have affected me so profoundly in so many different ways. Others do stand out for their application of the tech, a couple because of the people I have met and their passion for what they do and some because of their location and its impact on me. This one was a perfect storm, one I won’t forget.