In June 2020, Falcontech, a leading supplier of additively manufactured parts to China’s aerospace industry, released plans for its ‘Super AM Factory’ model, designed to house a targeted fifty metal Additive Manufacturing machines, most of them large-format platforms. By the end of October 2020, the facility had received its twenty-fourth metal AM machine from Farsoon Technologies, China’s leading Laser Beam Powder Bed Fusion (PBF-LB) machine manufacturer, thus fulfilling its 2020 expansion plans ahead of schedule.
To put the scale of this achievement into context, compared to the rapidly expanding metal AM market that can be seen in China today, in the early 2010s even the term Additive Manufacturing remained a deep mystery for most of the market. Plastic AM methods such as polymer Powder Bed Fusion, Material Extrusion (MEX) and Vat Photopolymerisation (VPP) had all achieved some level of acknowledgement and application within rapid prototyping and the consumer products market, but metal PBF-LB technology in China remained at a very early stage in terms of material, machines, processing and production.
Around this time, the demand for lean manufacturing, especially in the civil aerospace and medical industries, started to emerge in China. The development of key components requiring more complex structures, fully customised solutions, and faster ’design-to-manufacturing’ iterations, challenged established manufacturing processes such as casting.
While metal AM remained a novel technology in China, Shen Yulan, founder and General Manager of Falcontech (Fig. 1, left), observed this emerging market as an ideal advanced manufacturing solution for high-value-added applications.
Breaking new ground: the move into metal AM
With a background in the automotive industry and in metal alloys, Shen had developed an intimate knowledge of a fully developed manufacturing chain and the lean profit margins which went along with such a mature industry. Being one of the main shareholders of Yinbang Clad Material Co., Ltd, Shen had continuously explored new advanced technologies and markets with the potential to impact the future of manufacturing. After seeing metal Additive Manufacturing becoming widely used in Europe and America, Shen felt confident in introducing and driving the adoption of metal AM in the Chinese market.
Established in August 2012, Falcontech is located in Wuxi City, near Shanghai. Situated in the Yangtze Delta location, one of the most developed industrial regions in China, home to a large pool of talent, Falcontech was able to form a technical team with a solid background in metallurgy, material production, and Additive Manufacturing, with a clear vision of establishing an industrial-level metal PBF-LB ecosystem to offer innovative solutions for the key aerospace and medical sectors.
In order to offer high-quality components and solutions for the aerospace and medical industries, as well as other industries such as shipping, chemical production, and automotive, Falcontech set up a comprehensive, closed-loop technical roadmap with the early establishment of three main business units: Metal Powders, Metal Additive Solutions, and Advanced Manufacturing, in order to offer its customers metal powder development and production, application engineering, parts production, material processing, post-processing, inspection and standardisation.
Wei Li, the company’s Sales Director (Fig. 1, right), stated, “Falcontech has a clear vision of a technical roadmap focusing on metal Additive Manufacturing, including material processing, part production and post-processing. For manufacturing systems, including material production lines and Additive Manufacturing systems, we chose to partner with the industry leaders. We believe that combining our expertise and knowledge through a professional partnership is the best strategy to offer the high-quality solutions to the industrial additive market.”
In Additive Manufacturing, material is king
The first element of the metal Additive Manufacturing value chain is the material used to produce parts. Before 2012, the availability of specific-grade, high-end metal powder in China was heavily dominated by various international brands from Canada and Germany. However, due to import regulations, the purchase of specialised grades of metal powder from outside China could not meet the needs of process development and large-scale parts production.
Falcontech realised early on the need for a sufficient supply of consistent, aerospace-grade material as key to the production of high-performance end-use components for civil aircraft. In September 2012, the company invested in an advanced Electrode Induction Melting Gas Atomisation (EIGA) material production line dedicated to titanium alloy powder development and production under an inert atmosphere (Figs. 3 and 4). The smelting process is carried out without a crucible, with the metal stream controlled by high-speed inert flow to break the bonding force between the liquid metal atoms and achieve atomisation.
Taking titanium alloy as an example, with intensive formula optimisation and process development, Falcontech has been able to produce Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) -certified, aerospace grade titanium powder with excellent repeatability, purity, sphericity and flowability, well-suited for industry applications in Additive Manufacturing, Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP), Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) and surface coating.
By closely working with leaders in both industry and research, Falcontech’s metal powders have been tried and tested both in China and globally. With an annual yield of ninety tons, Falcontech’s titanium powder stands out for its quality, and has a significant market share in the industry.
Today, Falcontech offers a total of twenty-four grades of titanium, nickel-base, cobalt chromium, aluminium and steel alloys in a variety of particle sizes.
Entering China’s civil aerospace market
As an early adopter of metal Additive Manufacturing in China, Falcontech has been witness to the rise of the country’s civil aerospace industry, as well as the growth of its manufacturing ecosystem. In 2013, the company established a long-term partnership with COMAC, the leading civil aerospace manufacturer in China, when the companies agreed a collaboration project on the metal Additive Manufacturing of titanium components for use on the C919 aircraft. The COMAC C919 is a narrow-body twinjet airliner capable of carrying up to 168 passengers. This collaboration accelerated Falcontech’s establishment of manufacturing methods able to meet the standards required in the aerospace industry, for both material and part production.
“Standards are the key to pushing an advanced technology into a successful commercial product,” stated Shen. “Industry standards in the aerospace sector will best ensure the consistency, repeatability, and reliability of the production quality.” Falcontech therefore invested heavily and consistently in large-scale aerospace-grade titanium material testing, Additive Manufacturing process development, part production, and post-processing studies, building up a quality control database according to the certification of airworthiness. In 2014, the company received AS9100C & ISO 9001:2008 aerospace industry certification.
After two years of intensive collaboration and development, the COMAC project reached its successful conclusion in 2015, by which point twenty-eight metal AM parts had been approved by COMAC and installed for operation on the C919. Falcontech was the first company to supply metal additively manufactured parts for a civil airliner in China. As a leading metal Additive Manufacturing service provider, the company also became a qualified part supplier to COMAC, and still supplies parts to six C919 jets today (Fig. 5).
“Metal Additive Manufacturing has shown the potential to transform the design-prototyping process in the aerospace industry,” explained Shen. “Take the aerospace engine as an example; production of each component by traditional manufacturing takes more than ten processes and six-to-twenty-four months due to their complicated structures. Additive Manufacturing is able to simplify the manufacturing process and accelerate part iteration by three-to-four times. Now, we are able to produce a brand-new engine prototype within three years, compared to the ten-to-fifteen years taken by traditional processes.”
The bigger picture
Falcontech is now looking to the bigger picture of true industrial manufacturing. Following its success on the C919 project, it entered into small-batch production of metal AM parts for COMAC, and – to meet the estimated aircraft orders it could expect from the company – began to expand its capacity for part production, heat treatment, post-processing and advanced inspection.
“We set up a phased technology and marketing plan at Falcontech to achieve our goal of metal additive industrialisation,” Shen noted. “In the first five years, 2012–2016, we focused on material and technology research for metal Additive Manufacturing – we heavily invested in a number of international industrial metal 3D printing brands for this process. We carried out a number of tasks, including metal material formulation development and series production and material process engineering, testing our material on various metal platforms to ensure repeatable performance with multiple international brands of metal additive systems on the market. Also, from the very beginning, we started the process of material certification towards targeted industries and applications.”
In addition, the company continued to expand its services and markets into the medical and automotive sectors. By working closely with industrial partners, Falcontech also acquired ISO13485 certification in the medical sector.
“Interestingly enough, by the end of 2016, the global additive market also accelerated, with GE and Siemens entering the game,” noted Li. “These changes also convinced us it was right to walk the line towards industrialising Additive Manufacturing production. This is when the idea of the Super AM Factory came into focus for our next 2017–2021 five-year development phase.”
Towards a Super AM Factory
“In order to have a better understanding of industrial AM and better prepare ourselves for building a Super AM Factory, during 2017 and 2018, our core team arranged multiple tours for market research, technical training and institutional exchange around the globe; expanding our team of experts from technology, sales and production sectors. Also, we kept investing in more value-added specific industry applications to develop deeper knowhow in the industry,” said Shen.
The target of the Super AM Factory envisioned by Falcontech was to scale up metal Additive Manufacturing productivity, differentiated service capacity (such as large-format part fabrication), a streamlined industrial workflow, and – most of all – to achieve a truly economical manufacturing cost. With more than seven years’ experience in operating metal AM machines from various international brands, Falcontech understood that better cost-performance was the key to expanding the technology’s applications. This goal could only be achieved by working with a local manufacturing partner.
“This partnership required a much higher level of technical collaboration, a customised build platform, a higher degree of flexibility in parameter control, an established process database of various material degrees for quality control, and a lower cost of machine ownership and operation. In order to achieve this goal, we had to find a strong partner in the industry,” Shen explained.
After over a year in evaluation, Falcontech entered into a long-term partnership with Changsha, Hunan-based machine maker Farsoon Technologies, making a significant investment in a number of the company’s metal AM machines.
“We had a clear-thinking process when choosing the partner,” explained Shen. “Firstly, we were looking for a strong leader in industrial AM with full competence of machine development and manufacturing that would be able to offer quality products and solutions. Second, the company must have the capability for technology innovation, based on a profound industry knowhow, in order to be able to develop customised solutions that could support our industrial-scale production and differentiated service capacity.”
“Finally, based on our wide range of applications and industrial manufacturing capacity, we needed a high level of technical support and fast-response service to ensure high machine uptime and achieve an economic manufacturing cost,” he continued. “We were very lucky to find Farsoon as the right partner that can meet all our needs.”
As of October 2020, Falcontech has purchased twenty-four Farsoon metal AM machines. With its enhanced manufacturing capacity for series production, Falcontech has firmly established itself as a leading aerospace manufacturing service provider in both China and the global market.
Innovators in AM growing together
“As our partnership developed, I found out that Falcontech and Farsoon are similar in many ways,” said Li. “Both companies are professional in their technology, while all have truly open mindsets to collaborate and grow together. Both of our R&D teams can work innovatively towards a technical solution in various contexts, e.g. machine adaption, software integration, parameter development and productivity optimisation; this allows us to respond quickly to market needs. We are seeing more benefits and added value brought by Farsoon’s open-minded, in-depth partnership, compared to the more conservative, less operationally flexible and slower technical solution iterations working with international brands.”
Through the joint efforts taken by Farsoon’s metal application team and Falcontech, significant technical progress has been made, with the companies achieving optimal productivity, part wall structures as thin as 0.5 mm, improved dimensional accuracy ± 0.5 mm/800 mm, improved build surface roughness of Ra 6.3, and higher metallurgical quality for parts produced on Farsoon AM machines.
Thanks to the ‘open for industry’ philosophy of Farsoon’s machines, Falcontech is able to operate with a higher degree of flexibility in parameter setting and future material development, which has contributed to a total of twenty material processing parameters for aerospace applications, including multiple types and grades of titanium alloys, aluminium alloys and nickel-base superalloys. Farsoon’s application team also assisted Falcontech with the establishment of a processing database for aerospace materials, for future development and manufacturing quality control.
“The openness of Farsoon’s manufacturing platform is important for us in both material development and industrial scale production,” explained Li. “Our material team can have better flexibility exploring different parameter combinations of laser power, scanning path, layer thickness and scanning speed; this is especially valuable when it comes to specialised superalloy materials development for high-end applications. During large-volume series production, we can optimise the build speed by choosing a variety of layer thicknesses to improve the production yield. In comparison with a closed additive system, Farsoon’s open platform will offer more benefits in the long run, allowing more possibilities for specialised material and application development without any major technical restrictions. It also encourages increasing technical exploration and software integrations for a more connected manufacturing ecosystem.”
As leading companies in China’s AM industry, Falcontech and Farsoon also shared the responsibility to further push for advanced materials and bring a technical AM solution to the manufacturing market. As Li explained, “Farsoon is a true partner for us rather than simply a machine supplier. With invaluable support from Farsoon we are able to further explore a number of key applications and educate the potential markets about the advantages of Additive Manufacturing; all these cannot be achieved without an open mind.”
Enhanced productivity through large-format machines
Of the twenty-four Farsoon metal AM machines Falcontech has purchased to date, twenty-two are large-format Farsoon FS621M (Fig. 7) and FS421M (Fig. 8) machines. These have build volumes of 620 x 620 x 1100 mm and 425 × 425 × 420 mm respectively.
Introduced to the Chinese market in early 2020, the FS621M machine is one outcome of Farsoon and Falcontech’s collaboration. The customised large-format machine offers an industry-leading build envelope, extended build chamber volume and maximum productivity per laser. Addressing the challenges facing metal AM, such as productivity, build size constraints, powder management, process control and factory layout, Farsoon developed the FS621M by co-innovating with the Falcontech team to understand the needs of their AM factory. With one of the largest PBF-LB build volumes on the market, the systems are opening new possibilities for metal production which could not previously have been achieved for industries such as aerospace, oil and gas, and many others.
As of today, the installation base of the FS621M system at Falcontech has reached a total of four systems and these are used for large-volume parts fabrication and batch production. An increasing number of processing parameters have also been developed with Falcontech to process a wide range of powders, including titanium alloys, aluminium alloys, nickel-base superalloys and stainless steels.
The FS421M system is the first metal AM solution to be released under Farsoon’s Continuous Additive Manufacturing Solution (CAMS) concept. With productive multi-laser solutions and continuous production capability, the FS421M has achieved accumulative sales of more than thirty systems globally. “We have seen exceptional performance and stability in the Farsoon FS421M metal system via multiple series production jobs since installation,” stated Li. “We are thrilled by the high-quality parts manufactured taking advantage of the benefits from Farsoon AM. With the increasing demand of manufacturing orders, we will further expand our production capacity and improve turnaround time for parts delivery with more Farsoon metal systems.”
Technical support and customer service for engineering excellence
With the increasing demand for metal AM component production in the civil aerospace market, the Falcontech team has been met with engineering challenges from a wide range of specific applications. Titanium alloys represent an important application material for key aerospace components, but with the high level of internal stresses generated during the build process, titanium alloys, especially TA15 parts, tend to show internal defects such as cracks and porosity, resulting in part failure during functional testing for mechanical properties. This risk becomes even more challenging when it comes to larger part fabrication. Previously, although the Falcontech team had made significant investments into finding a solution to ensure the mechanical properties of larger TA15 parts, the company was only able to successfully build small- to medium-sized parts, due to its limited ability to customise processing parameters.
Now, with the availability of Farsoon’s open AM machines, the company’s engineers have been able to greatly improve their ability to customise a wide range of processing parameters for this material, especially in terms of gas flow and laser power. With the help of Farsoon’s application team, Falcontech was also able to explore the combination of heat treatment and specific processing solutions. Within a short span of time, Falcontech is now able to successfully produce oversized TA15 parts on both FS421M and FS301M machines, with excellent mechanical performance and improved productivity.
As the machine installation base has reached twenty-four systems total, Falcontech has also received more projects and is now running to almost its full manufacturing capacity. Farsoon’s service team has offered tailored customer-centric training and service plans throughout. During the beta-testing phase of the four installed FS621Ms, the company assigned a dedicated engineer at Falcontech’s facility for training staff and ensuring machine uptime. Farsoon also set up an on-site inventory at Falcontech’s Super AM Factory, equipped with important consumable machine parts.
“We are impressed by the professionalism, efficiency and creativity of Farsoon’s technical support and service force,” commented Li. “Farsoon has shown a real customer-centric mindset and understands the critical points of a service bureau. Innovative service plans like on-site inventory have improved our operational management, and minimise the machine downtime from parts ordering, payment and shipping.”
Understanding the emerging Chinese and global market
Despite the influence of the coronavirus (COVID-19) during 2020, Falcontech has seen signs of strong growth in industrial metal AM, and more opportunities opening up in China. Besides the emerging Chinese civil aerospace industry, the aviation sector also calls increasingly for development and prototyping parts for manned aerial vehicles, satellites and space vehicles. These advanced aerospace applications usually feature complex design geometries, making metal AM a well-suited manufacturing alternative.
“We have seen an increasing number of industry giants from traditional manufacturing, including the automotive, machinery, heavy industry, shipping and moulding industries in China, starting their evaluation and layout to implement metal Additive Manufacturing,” Li explained. Starting from last year, a variety of metal AM technologies in China have received increasing capital investment and funding from the market to support R&D and accelerate the industry’s development.
“As for the global market,” Li adds, “we have also observed a similar trend around larger-format production systems, especially with tall vertical height, multi-laser systems for increased productivity, and specialised high-temperature alloy materials.”
With the establishment of the Super AM Factory, Falcontech can offer the combined manufacturing capacity of over twenty medium- to large-format machines to manufacture large parts in relatively high volumes. Li stated, “We are confident in offering an advanced metal laser sintering [PBF-LB] solution, from quality materials to processing development, series production, post processing and inspection services, to global partners.”