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.