Throughout 2018 reports (and opinions) about additive manufacturing (AM) processes evolving into true production-ready technologies have escalated significantly. As I reported post Formnexta few weeks back, many AM OEMs and ecosystem partners are now promoting their equipment and technologies as production capable. Supporting this trend is an increasing number of visible applications, with plenty of evidence to suggest significantly higher number of this type of application still in stealth mode.
As fast as this narrative has intensified this year, I suspect we have barely scratched the surface and this trend is only going to increase into 2019 and beyond. It was perhaps fitting then, for Materials Solutions to host the grand opening of its new dedicated AM factory in Worcester this past week, witnessed by a host of VIPs and clients. The following day, Materials Solutions, a Siemens company, following the latter’s acquisition of the former in 2016, welcomed a press contingent to the site to tour the new facility and get a briefing on the direction and vision of the company — all centred around production applications of AM.
As 2018 closes out and the new year dawns it was an apposite visual manifestation of the production evolution with AM. The last time I visited a Siemens AM facility, in Finspang (Sweden) last year, I made no secret of the fact that I was impressed with the company, its’ realistic approach to AM for production, and the specific application it revealed– the critical burner component for its gas turbines. At that time, while there was reference to the acquisition and collaboration with Materials Solutions, but no clear evidence of alignment. A year later and that has all changed – indeed, for me it was the one of the main take-aways from the visit.
The alignment of Siemens as a leading and experienced user of metal AM processes, as well as a service provider working in collaboration with OEMs and their supply chains was crystal clear. Across three divisions based out of the Sweden, Germany and the UK, Siemens’ approach is realistic, holistic and unified.
Believe it or not, for such a large company, this is rare. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been speaking with people from large OEMs who seem oblivious to the AM capabilities within a different division of the same organization, particularly if it’s in a different geographic region.
From Thursday’s press briefing and conversations with division leaders, namely Markus Seibold (VP AM Siemens Power and Gas, Germany), Vladimir Navrotsky (CTO Siemens Power Generation, Sweden) and Phil Hatherley (General Manager of Materials Solutions, UK) I was left with the distinct impression that Siemens continues to expand and deliver its vision for metal AM through application development and production applications with a strategic roadmap for implementation. In particular, Navrotsky’s understanding of and passion for the capabilities of metal AM are a key driver, I suspect.
The new Materials Solutions digital factory is a major milestone on that roadmap. Material Solutions itself has an almost 10-year history, dating back to 2009 when the company was founded by Carl Brancher, with the aim of solving complex issues with metal AM. In the early days, the focus was very much on application development, qualification and proving the selective laser melting (SLM) process within manufacturing environments. The new factory continues to build on this heritage with a marked paradigm shift towards serial production, according to the three division leaders who were all very much on the same page. Of course, this was a press event, and this narrative was likely coordinated and planned, but beyond the rhetoric there is a great deal of visible action — not to mention the results coming out of Siemens. And once again, what can be seen, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Listening to Markus, Phil and Vladimir during the sit-down session, another key take-away was the focus on serial production. In Sweden, lead by Vladimir, they’re already doing it with cost savings and added value. Phil is committed to bringing these same advantages to Materials Solutions’ partners and clients. Again, it did not come across as rhetoric, and it was interesting to hear Phil define serial production in terms of “certified parts” and the ability to produce any volume of certified parts repeatably and reliably, with every stage of the process (design, build, material, traceability, qualification and post processing) dialled in.
In terms of applications, there is a keen understanding at Materials Solutions that identifying the right applications to maximize the time and cost efficiencies of AM is vital to successful production applications. To highlight this point, during the tour, Phil showed the press delegation a highly complex part that one would assume would be a great fit for AM. However, due to its size (it was big) it too 39 DAYS to build. The EOS machine it was built on handled it without issue, the part was proven and qualified, but the time and cost of a 39-day build was just not acceptable.
While the focus of the large new Materials Solutions factory was certainly the AM capabilities (currently 19 metal systems, with the capacity for 50 in total), the set-up went to illustrate an end-to-end digital process, with increasing levels of automation being built in too. The facility also offers design and scanning capabilities, process simulation through new software development from Siemens other key division, qualification services, build, inspection, certification and post-processing. Moreover, there was no hiding from the fact that growth and evolution is still ongoing, particularly on the automation side. Materials Solutions is working with Solukon on more automated post-processing of AM parts. But, as Phil delightedly pointed out, “sometimes we just use one of these”
The other project underway, involves a mezzanine level of the factory, which is currently not being used. However, the plan is to integrate an automated material handling system, using LPW’s huge material hoppers, which will automatically feed the machines on the factory floor, and negate manual filling of the machines.
Siemens really is serious about AM, moreover it is a company leading by example with application development, collaboration and supply chain awareness. Sharing expertise through Materials Solutions and further driving the vision for a digital factory enabled by AM.