Burloak and the AM scalability challenge: A contract manufacturer’s perspective on the shift to volume production

We all love to talk about how Additive Manufacturing can transform product design, improve an application's performance, reduce part count and material waste, enable faster design cycles and far more besides. But what is less often discussed is the challenge of scaling up production once an application has been developed. It is this aspect of AM that has been the focus of activity at Burloak Technologies. In this article, Burloak's Jason Ball, VP & General Manager, and Keyvan Hosseinkhani, Technical Director, consider the challenges of scaling AM, and how they can be overcome. [First published in Metal AM Vol. 7 No. 4, Winter 2021 | 20 minute read | View on Issuu | Download PDF]

An EOS M 290 Laser Beam Powder Bed Fusion AM machine post-build (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 1 An EOS M 290 Laser Beam Powder Bed Fusion AM machine post-build at Burloak (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

In recent years, Additive Manufacturing has swiftly gained prominence in the manufacturing space – and with good reason. Because this evolving manufacturing technology essentially allows teams to manufacture parts ‘from the ground up,’ countless organisations, such as Canadas’ Burloak Technologies Inc, are using it to break free from the design constraints of traditional manufacturing methods and experience a whole new world of product and process possibilities.

The benefits of Additive Manufacturing are well documented. This form of manufacturing helps companies overcome costly product performance issues, resulting in stronger materials, fewer parts and reduced weights. It decreases broader organisational costs by allowing for designs that slash greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, create localised sourcing options or accelerate design cycles. In many cases, it also leads to significantly less material waste.

What the media coverage and AM service provider web pages seem to omit, however, are stories about companies that have successfully scaled this technology or fully integrated it into their manufacturing processes. That’s because, despite AM’s host of benefits, it simply hasn’t evolved to that level. Yet.

That’s not to say scaling AM isn’t possible – it very much is. While current business cases remain few and far between, some companies (particularly those in the aerospace, space and power generation sectors) are already realising success. In this article, we’ll unpack why AM scaling isn’t more widespread, what it will take to launch AM to the next stage of adoption, and which practical solutions are needed to get us there.

The complex challenges of scaling Additive Manufacturing

The materials lab is an essential part of any metal Additive Manufacturing facility (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 2 The materials lab is an essential part of any metal Additive Manufacturing facility (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

Given the extensive applications for AM, pinpointing a single cause for its limited scalability is virtually impossible. Rather, there are numerous reasons why a company might invest in an AM prototype, but fail to mass-produce that prototype at scale.

Given how nascent AM is, misconceptions and an unfamiliarity with the AM design process are likely the primary culprits. Most engineers currently in the workforce do not have design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) skills. Their mindsets are rooted in traditional methods of design – methods that involve carving away existing materials and which work within these constraints. This lack of AM expertise can make it difficult to reframe design thinking, or change or modify a design, to leverage the full potential of AM.

To make widespread adoption even more challenging, AM isn’t the silver bullet that many companies make it out to be. While some applications are well suited to AM, many are not. To differentiate the two, you need a clear understanding of AM design rules and the technology’s restrictions, and that knowledge comes with a steep learning curve. Similarly, because in-depth DfAM knowledge is still scarce in most industries, few companies have engineers in-house who can identify opportunities well-suited to AM, hampering efforts to make strong business cases for its adoption.

This lack of familiarity with AM design concepts becomes a problem when a company pushes an engineering team towards AM without a clear understanding of why a shift in manufacturing processes is needed. To get the most out of an AM part – and get it to a point of scalability – it’s important to define why this method of manufacturing is advantageous, and how it stands to improve upon existing functional and business requirements. This exercise can help ensure an organisation is considering the full AM picture, while building steps such as part design, manufacturing, post-processing and quality assurance into the business case. Without completing this preliminary exercise, it may be possible to prototype a part with AM only to find scaling it simply might not make financial sense.

To understand some of the existing barriers to scaling AM, consider some of these common challenges:

Technological and process challenges

Even if you create a prototype that makes financial sense to build at scale, technology issues are not uncommon. Many organisations encounter a range of technological and process challenges that make scaling a prototype incredibly arduous, forcing them to revert to traditional forms of manufacturing. These challenges span the gamut, including things like:

Materials development

In subtractive manufacturing, qualified materials are delivered directly from mills to distribution centres. AM, on the other hand, begins with a metal powder – and this powder requires a lot of additional material testing to ensure properties and components are acceptable. This step can add considerable time to the manufacturing process.
This difference in materials can also lead to potentially unforeseen investments when switching from traditional manufacturing to AM. For example, if you’re a tooling company switching from machining/casting to AM, you will likely need new simulation efforts to accommodate design changes or the use of different materials.

Manual post-processing

Right now, Powder Bed Fusion AM requires manufacturers to build support structures with each part. These support structures have to be manufactured alongside the wanted part, then removed from the final components. This step in the AM process can’t yet be fully automated – meaning it requires manual labour, support and tools, which can slow down efforts to scale production.

Technology reliability

As with many developing industries in their early stages, today’s AM technologies lack standardisation, which further complicates efforts to scale. If you want to manufacture two parts on two different platforms – or on two different machines from different manufacturers – the parts are unlikely to come out identical. To maintain a homogeneity and quality, therefore, you’re better off sticking to one machine line. Beyond making it difficult to produce large runs in a preferred timeframe, this tactic also relegates manufacturers to ongoing reliance on older-generation technology.

Whilst larger format PBF-LB machines such as these EOS M 400 4 quad laser machines bring enhanced build speeds, post-processing remains a challenge when looking to scale production (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 3 Whilst larger format PBF-LB machines such as these EOS M 400 4 quad laser machines bring enhanced build speeds, post-processing remains a challenge when looking to scale production (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

Skilled labour

As we mentioned before, AM is a relatively new industry – so new, in fact, that it’s not yet a curriculum fixture in engineering and trade schools. This, combined with the fact that each AM technology requires a different set of skills, makes it difficult to find people with the training to run the latest equipment or support AM scaling at large. AM teams also need the ability to understand and respond to varying lead times and capacities, which will inevitably be unique to every project, and organisations must be able to develop and financially support a long-term plan when technology is changing at a rapid pace.

Quality assurance challenges

Quality assurance is critical in all forms of manufacturing, both subtractive and AM. But, when you’re producing products at scale, AM is another ballgame. To understand why, it’s helpful to understand the difference between a traditional manufacturing machine shop and an AM shop.

Quality assurance process

In a traditional shop, you likely purchase your material from a trusted supplier and receive a certification to ensure the grade of material you want is what you indeed purchased. Once you start running that material through your machines, you take your parts to an inspection room to measure their geometries and confirm manufacturing consistency.

In an AM facility, on the other hand, you don’t use solid materials – you use powder. To build your parts properly, that powder must possess highly specific metallurgical qualities that must be tested in a metallurgical lab, which can be costly to run. Additionally, because the morphology of the powder can change over time, both the powder and the finished parts must be tested across the production lifecycle to make sure they continue to conform to the necessary performance standards.

Quality performance standards

All AM materials have different performance and thermal properties, and knowing which quality standards are needed for specific applications requires a lot of legwork. Because industry-wide performance standards don’t yet exist in AM, every company must develop their own, which adds to existing quality assurance challenges. Developing these standards can take months – if not years – to complete, as every machine, process and material must be qualified by each supplier.

Customised testing

Tensile testing of built samples. Conducting high volumes of testing simply isn’t feasible at a larger scale, so quality plans need to be put in place to streamline the process (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 4 Tensile testing of built samples. Conducting high volumes of testing simply isn’t feasible at a larger scale, so quality plans need to be put in place to streamline the process (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

Conducting that amount of testing simply isn’t feasible at a larger scale, which is why it’s important to have a quality plan in place to streamline the process. To understand how this works, imagine you want to create parts out of titanium: Right now, there are two different powder bed AM methods for this metal, but each one produces different geometries and product profiles. Even when produced on the same machine, these variations can still exist.

Understanding this, you can’t have a standard profile for all titanium parts. Rather, as you scale up, you must be prepared to develop different quality plans. If you’re producing only ten parts, for instance, it may be reasonable to conduct significant testing on each part. As you move up to 1,000 parts or more, however, you’ll have to adopt a sampling plan. Determining the right plan is particularly challenging at present because, unlike with traditional manufacturing, there aren’t yet industry-level quality standards in AM. It’s up to each company to create its own standards and associated specifications to adhere to its desired quality safeguards, creating a further barrier to AM scalability.

Financial inhibitors

In many ways, making the decision to scale your AM efforts creates a ‘chicken and egg’ challenge. While a prototype might seem feasible in theory, you’ll never truly know its scalability potential until you invest in the necessary capital equipment and try it out – a leap that can cost upwards of $1,000,000.

The trouble is that potential challenges or barriers only make themselves visible after you make that investment. It’s quite possible that quality control issues, unforeseen technology investments or your choice of materials could cause problems only at a higher scale, making the experiment financially unfeasible. And you may not reach that point until many years down the road, after you’ve poured money and resources into the project.

Overcoming the obstacles

A bay of CNC machines for the post-processing of AM parts (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 5 A bay of CNC machines for the post-processing of AM parts (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

As you can see, the barriers facing widespread AM scalability are far-reaching and complex. Overcoming them will require collaboration on the part of government, the manufacturing industry, academia and AM technology manufacturers and operators – and the path forward will be anything but easy. Here are some of the ways in which the key stakeholders can help move the needle forward.

Government

As governments across the world strive to tackle climate change and mitigate its negative impacts, many are looking to support new ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly through clean energy initiatives. In the automotive sector, for instance, car manufacturers have long been required to adhere to strict fuel economy regulations – and these mandates are quickly extending to other sectors, as well. Additionally, a growing trend to reduce reliance on the global supply chain and bring more manufacturing dollars back home has motivated governments to create programmes designed to encourage domestic production.

AM offers a pragmatic solution to both mandates and stands to bolster national competitiveness in the process. Because of this, governments would be well served in providing funding programmes to help alleviate the vast financial cost of AM adoption and make scalability more feasible. As demand for AM increases, governments could also help meet the growing need for skilled labour by working with educators and industry to build AM programmes and facilitate a competitive talent pipeline.

Educational institutions

As AM gains momentum, educational institutions will increasingly need to train engineers in core DfAM principles. By supporting part consolidation and topology optimisation, DfAM can help manufacturers reduce both material weights and usage, resulting in less costly, lighter weight parts. It is also incumbent on industry to work with educators to help structure training programmes that allow engineers and designers to upskill. Given the significant savings potential inherent in industrial-scale AM, demand for enhanced skillsets (e.g., AM design expertise, qualified machine technicians, new types of quality control and next-generation software development) is only set to accelerate.

Industry

Part of AM’s maturation process will inevitably involve the adoption of consistent, industry-wide quality standards – and widespread scalability will not occur until those standards exist. The trouble is, creating standardised process specifications to prove out each additive mixture is easier said than done.

Today, the few companies that have managed to produce parts via AM at scale have poured a lot of time and money into creating their own specifications. While some of these specifications may be consistent across industries, the truth is that most vary tremendously.

To overcome this challenge, many working groups – comprised of members of industry associations – are trying to find a common thread that will allow a basic framework to govern AM quality. ASTM International formed such a committee back in 2009 and ISO followed suit in 2011. Since then, several other standard development organisations have taken a crack at proposing globally consistent standards, ranging from AM process and equipment standards to those for finished AM parts.

The hope is that, with these parameters in place, individuals at the design level – who have ideally gone through an AM-focused education programme – will be able to integrate quality standards at the outset of the process, allowing the information to seamlessly flow downstream.

AM technology manufacturers

Each AM technology requires a different set of skills, making it challenging to find people with the training to run the latest equipment or support AM scaling at large (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 6 Each AM technology requires a different set of skills, making it challenging to find people with the training to run the latest equipment or support AM scaling at large (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

Regardless of which AM company you end up scaling with, they’re going to have one thing in common: immature technology. That’s because AM, itself, is a relatively new industry – and, in many ways, the technology still needs to evolve before we reach a point of seamless scalability.

Equipment reliability can vary from company to company, but your rate of success can also vary from batch to batch. As such, the equipment still has a lot of room to evolve and grow (depending on the technology) by adding more lasers, more power per laser, better control of the laser spot size, more consistent performance and other features. The challenging thing is that these advancements can only be achieved with time – and, perhaps, experience.

On the plus side, the digital infrastructure required to support AM is accelerating apace. Platforms now exist to streamline workflow management, analyse machine performance and schedule both production and post-processing, laying the foundation for improved scalability across the board.

Individual businesses

AM adopters can increase their rate of scalability success by doing the appropriate legwork up-front and making sure there’s a sound business case for AM adoption. During this process, it’s critical to consider the big picture and understand all facets of the investment, including the total cost of ownership, benefits of faster time-to-market and the long-term impact of improved part performance. From there, if a business case exists to scale your AM production, you’ll need to develop a clear roadmap to keep your efforts on track.

Thankfully, this process is increasingly being supported by chemical and material manufacturers that continue to introduce innovative raw materials for AM.

Burloak Technologies: Exploring the solutions at our fingertips

Hot Isostatic Pressing technology is used as a final processing step for some metal AM applications to eliminate residual porosity or optimise microstructures (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)
Fig. 7 Hot Isostatic Pressing technology is used as a final processing step for some metal AM applications to eliminate residual porosity or optimise microstructures (Courtesy Burloak Technologies)

As this assessment shows, a lot of things have to happen before scaling AM becomes an accessible and reliable endeavour. That said, partners such as Burloak are taking steps to accelerate the process and eradicate many of these barriers through enhanced AM solutions.

For instance, one of the greatest challenges in this space is variations in maturity – whether you’re talking about expertise, technology, processes or industry standards. To overcome this issue, Burloak has made significant investments across the board. Not only do we employ some of the most knowledgeable and experienced AM advisors in the business, but we also offer all the high-performing tools you need, in-house.

This includes technologies such as Electron Beam Powder Bed Fusion (PBF-EB), Laser Powder Bed Fusion (PBF-LB); the Material Extrusion (MEX)-based processes High Speed Extrusion (HSE) and Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM); Directed Energy Deposition (DED); Binder Jetting (BJT); CNC machining; Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP); vacuum heat treatment; and surface finishing equipment. Additional metrology and testing tools – such as a coordinate measuring machine, profilometer, micro-computed tomography (CT) and laser scanning (among others) – allow us to achieve extremely tight tolerances, precisely verify parts and assemblies and conduct a vast range of non-destructive testing to meet the most stringent quality parameters. This means everything from Additive Manufacturing to post-processing is conducted on the most reliable technology in the business – and tested in our state-of-the-art metallurgical lab.

Our team has spent years carefully studying all AM technology brands on the market and has taken steps to invest in equipment that offers the least variability from machine to machine. Additionally, every process we perform on a given machine comes with detailed operational instructions. This standardisation makes it easier to scale AM production. Specifically, we only have to go through the time-consuming qualification process for a product once – so if a customer comes back to us, even years later, requesting a larger run, we can do so with shorter lead times and guaranteed quality.

Solving for scalability

Perhaps one of Burloak’s greatest advantages is that it’s part of Samuel, Son & Co. – a 165-year-old company that specialises in metal processing, distribution and part manufacturing. With experience serving customers in virtually every industry, Samuel has a strong track record of operationalising and scaling manufacturing processes – and implementing virtually every type of metal processing and manufacturing technology currently available on the market.

This affiliation offers Burloak access to an unparalleled depth of knowledge and expertise related to part design and manufacturing, while allowing us to be technologically agnostic – and ensure every customer receives the best manufacturing recommendations for their required parts. Below are just a few ways we apply this knowledge to AM:

Consistent standards

One common practice when scaling a design at Burloak Technologies is to develop standardised processes and procedures. When a new project comes to Burloak, we work with the customer to understand their requirements, specifications and qualification needs – and then develop standardised processes to meet those requirements as well as the requirements of future projects.

For example, our Powder Metallurgy lab has been conducting mechanical testing in-house and collecting invaluable data for years. This data has helped us collaborate effectively with our customers to build out robust quality standards designed to meet their needs. Our strong Quality Management System, meanwhile, enables us to implement standardised work procedures to better define things like production needs, powder management requirements and quality specifications.

Essentially, in the absence of industry-wide standards, we work with our customers to establish our own set – and then apply those standards to relevant customers in relevant industries as we move forward. This standardisation in processes allows us to reach unparalleled levels of quality and repeatability – levels that are high enough to meet the stringent requirements of the aerospace industry, as well as power generation, automotive, space, energy and industrial manufacturing. This approach also saves a lot of time because we don’t have to start from scratch with every new customer; many can skip over the standards development process and move right into production.

Local production

Another area Burloak is focusing on to help facilitate AM scalability is localisation. Because AM facilities aren’t nearly as commonplace as traditional manufacturing facilities, it can be difficult to find a partner situated near your desired market, resulting in complex supply chain issues. Finding a partner with the capacity to produce parts at scale can also be a challenge.

To help alleviate this issue, Burloak offers an end-to-end AM facility in Oakville, Ontario, Canada as well as another facility in Camarillo, California, to support customers in the United States.

The way forward

While we are likely still a few years off from widespread AM scalability, the option exists for companies with a strong business case for the technology. As more organisations face mounting pressure to reduce GHG emissions, localise production and slash manufacturing costs across the board, AM could be the answer they’re looking for. Which means scalability could be closer than we think.

Contact

Magdalena Becker
Marketing and Business Development Manager
Burloak Technologies Inc.,
3280 South Service Rd W,
Oakville, Ontario, L6L 0B1
Canada

[email protected]

www.burloaktech.com

www.samuel.com


Additive Manufacturing scalability in action at Burloak

Additive Manufacturing machines at Burloak

A customer in the aerospace industry came to us with a part they needed to redesign and, ultimately, wanted to produce at a large volume. They were hoping AM could help them reduce the number of pieces required to make the part, while simultaneously improving its performance.

Burloak’s team of DfAM experts worked closely with the company to pinpoint the part’s existing shortcomings, determine the organisation’s goals and zero in on an optimal part design. Within six weeks, we moved from design concept to prototype with amazing results. Rather than the previously-required thirty-five components, the new AM part was made of just one – and it was significantly stronger and lighter.

Pleased with the prototype, the company gave us the green light to help them scale its production. Because one of our pieces of equipment already met the customer’s qualification standards, we only had to bring the rest of our equipment through a delta qualification process, which is essentially a less-time-consuming version. Today, we have many of these machines producing the customer’s parts at scale, and are working on qualifying additional AM systems to support even greater production.


In the latest issue of Metal AM magazine

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Extensive AM industry news coverage, as well as the following exclusive deep-dive articles:

  • Transforming access to medical implants with PrinterPrezz
  • Lessons from 2021’s Olympic bike crash
  • Xerox liquid metal AM
  • Additive Manufacturing for oil, gas and maritime
  • Multi-material metal parts by Powder Bed Fusion
  • Findings from Wohlers Report 2022
  • The challenge of grain size: X-ray powder diffraction analysis of parts made by metal AM

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