The metal Additive Manufacturing industry is growing at a rapidly increasing rate. Interest among end-users is at an all-time high and an ever-broadening range of production applications is being reported on a regular basis. There are, however, a number of routes that a company can take to embrace AM technology. Just a few years ago, a company that had an application that it was looking to develop would probably have taken the obvious route of investing in a small production-scale AM machine and experimenting in product development, most probably with a team that had little experience of AM and a finite budget.
Many of the companies that took this route quickly discovered that the knowledge required to embrace all that Design for Additive Manufacturing offers – along with the technical complexity of the metal AM process and its associated post-processing steps – led to a long and expensive learning curve, punctuated by numerous build failures and increasing budgets.
This scenario developed into what is now a mainstay of the AM machine builder’s portfolio – consultancy services that offer to guide potential end-users through all stages of the development of an AM application, from design through to the commissioning of a dedicated in-house AM facility.
A further route by which a company can embrace AM, however, is in many ways the most conventional: partner with a specialist AM service provider to develop an application and then outsource production or, on a larger scale, form a production joint venture. The outsourcing of production is of course commonplace in the world of industrial manufacturing, for example for the manufacture of machined or cast components.
Working with an external partner for a product’s development and manufacture is by no means new in metal Additive Manufacturing – service bureaux have existed in the world of metal and plastic prototyping for many years. However, as demand for AM components for critical, high-value applications has grown, the concept of the AM service bureau has radically transformed into a far more sophisticated and industry-focused business model that is designed specifically for the volume production of aerospace, medical, automotive and power generation components – as examples – to the necessary international standards. Such partners must of course also be able to handle all of the necessary materials development, post-processing and quality monitoring that is required in metal Additive Manufacturing. It is within this space that Swiss engineering leader Oerlikon has positioned itself.
Oerlikon’s path to AM
Headquartered in Pfäffikon, Schwyz, Switzerland, Oerlikon is a major industrial technology group with more than 13,800 employees in thirty-seven countries and 2016 sales of CHF 2.331 billion ($2.37 billion). As such, it has the financial resources to support its ambition of becoming a leading player in AM. The group has over the last year steadily expanded its AM-related capabilities to the point where it can now support its customers through the entire AM process chain, from alloy development through to powder production, application development and component manufacturing, post-processing and quality inspection.
The company’s new Additive Manufacturing business, led by Florian Mauerer, fits within its Surface Solutions segment, one of three divisions in the Oerlikon group, with the others being Manmade Fibers and Drive Systems.
As a leader in advanced surface solutions, Oerlikon has had an interest in metal powder technologies for many years and this was further enhanced by its acquisition of Sulzer’s Metco division in 2014. This business, which specialises in the production of novel, high-performance metal powders such as superalloys for thermal spray applications, saw increasing demand for its products from the growing AM sector.
However, it was Oerlikon’s announcement in December 2016 that it was to acquire international AM producer citim GmbH that gave the first clues as to the group’s AM ambitions. citim’s core expertise lies in metal Additive Manufacturing for small-series production and functional prototypes and the company operates production sites in Europe (Barleben, Germany) and in North America (Kennesaw, Georgia, USA). Its primary markets are high-tech industries such as aviation, automotive and energy and in 2015 it generated sales of CHF 12 million (US $11.8 million) with around 120 employees.
Dr Roland Fischer, Oerlikon’s CEO, stated at the time of the transaction, “The competencies and team from citim will serve to consolidate our position in the Additive Manufacturing business, marking the acquisition as an important move for us to drive the industrialisation of Additive Manufacturing and to become an independent service provider for the production of additively manufactured components”.
In May this year Oerlikon announced a further acquisition; that of Scoperta Inc., an advanced materials development company with a proprietary process technology that enables the rapid design and development of new materials using computational software.
With these acquisitions, Oerlikon rapidly gained expertise in all areas of the AM process chain and successfully positioned itself as a leading player in the AM industry, with its services supported by its global network of service and production centres.
The story of citim
citim is without doubt the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Oerlikon’s Additive Manufacturing business unit. Founded in 1996 as a spin-off from Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany, the company first focused on prototype tooling. In the following years the company’s portfolio of production technologies steadily grew to include Selective Laser Sintering technologies in 2004 and Selective Laser Melting in 2009.
Today, citim operates twenty-seven AM machines across its sites in Germany and the US, with the latter site established in 2013. In 2016 the German operation moved into a new 7,000 m2 state-of-the-art production facility on a 25,000 m2 site. The knowledge and experience that its staff gained over more than twenty years of AM production of course not only brings expertise, but a high degree of credibility in an industry that is still seen by many as young and unproven.
In addition to metal AM technologies for prototype and series production, citim also offers precision sand casting, die casting with rapid tooling and HSC/CNC machining and milling – all with a focus on the rapid turnaround of low-volume production runs for small-series applications or prototyping.
citim also retains its founding expertise in plastic prototyping and low volume production using Selective Laser Sintering and injection moulding. For the latter, prototype tools can be rapidly manufactured from aluminium, with manually operated inserts where needed, to produce prototype components that can be regarded as ‘series-identical’.
XJet’s new AM production system installed in Oerlikon’s Barleben facility
In November, Oerlikon announced that XJet’s new Carmel 1400 Additive Manufacturing system was being installed at the Barleben facility. This was the first international installation of XJet’s inkjet-based technology for the additive production of ceramic parts. The NanoParticle JettingTM (NPJ) system featured in the machine uses separate nanoparticle ‘inks’ or fluids for the build and support material. This enables ceramic or metal parts to be produced with the ease and versatility which one associates with inkjet printing. The parts are then debound and sintered.
The system is configured to manufacture ceramic parts from zirconia, however at a later stage it can also be used to manufacture metal components that require the very fine resolution details that the Carmel system can offer.
“The cooperation with XJet is an exciting opportunity for us to expand our AM offering beyond metals and into ceramics,” commented Andreas Berkau, Head of AM Service Europe. “With over twenty years in the industry, citim has established itself as a leading international supplier of AM parts that meets evolving industry needs and remains at the forefront of AM technology. This collaboration enables us to stay ahead of technology developments and maintain our technology leadership.”
Florian Mauerer added that this collaboration with XJet is a natural extension of Oerlikon’s existing activities and, “further strengthens our technology offering and leadership position in the field of AM.”
New US Additive Manufacturing facilities bring additional AM and powder production capacity
In July 2017, Oerlikon announced that it would further expand its Additive Manufacturing business in the US with a new state of the art R&D and production facility for AM components in Charlotte, North Carolina. With an investment of around $55 million in the facility, the company is anticipating the creation of over a hundred new jobs when fully operational in 2018.
“Charlotte is an important step in our plans to grow our Additive Manufacturing business and our investment in key technology areas. The investment underlines our intention to become a leading independent global partner in the industrialisation of Additive Manufacturing,” stated Fischer.
Oerlikon also announced that it would be building a new $50 million state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Plymouth Township, Michigan, USA, dedicated to producing advanced materials for Additive Manufacturing and surface coatings. This facility will develop and manufacture a range of metal powders for AM, including titanium alloys. The site features the latest generation of vacuum inert gas atomisation (VIGA) technology, combining vacuum induction melting with inert gas atomisation systems.
In addition, the facility houses a state-of-the-art research and development lab for further alloy developments of titanium and other alloys (e.g. nickel, copper, iron and cobalt) for joint R&D projects with customers and will have the capacity to produce custom powders in small batches.
AM-grade metal powders currently offered by Oerlikon include nickel-, cobalt- and titanium-based alloys as well as stainless steels and maraging steels.
Innovative alloy development at Oerlikon
Oerlikon’s acquisition of Scoperta has put the company in a leading position to develop the next generation of material solutions for industrial applications, with powerful ‘big data’ analytical software used to design new alloys in a matter of months rather than years. The result is that new alloys can be commercialised much more effectively, thereby giving customers the materials needed for their applications far faster than through conventional empirical material development methods.
Such an alloy development solution is of particular interest for the metal AM industry, as there are cases where a brand-new AM-tailored alloy system may be a far better solution for specific applications, in terms of performance, cost and processability, than conventional cast alloy compositions. For example, new alloys can be developed to match the specific performance criteria of an existing alloy, but with a completely different composition.
Fischer stated, “The expertise and team from Scoperta adds great value and complements well with Oerlikon’s existing strong materials heritage and competence. With industries seeking solutions to improve performance and sustainability, the need for advanced materials and products is continuously growing. This investment underscores our aim to stay at the forefront of the new era of innovating for advanced materials, which will be used in surface solutions and also in Additive Manufacturing.”
“In our transition to become a powerhouse in surface solutions and advanced materials, such targeted and selective investments will reinforce our in-house capabilities and provide additional growth opportunities for Oerlikon.”
The acquisition of Scoperta undoubtedly strengthens Oerlikon’s position in the market for metallic and ceramic materials and extends the scope of services to customers in terms of developing individualised materials in significantly reduced development times and costs.
Munich as a centre of AM excellence
In October this year, Oerlikon formally opened a new Additive Manufacturing Technology & Innovation Centre in Munich. The centre will allow existing and potential customers to see and experience first-hand the design and production of metal components by AM along the process chain, from design and simulation to production and post-processing.
The centre will leverage its partnership with TU Munich, and its proximity to leading global industrial companies in the aerospace, automotive, power generation and medical devices sectors in the Munich region, to drive forward research and innovation in AM. The company states that it has made “a high single-digit-million Swiss Franc investment” in the centre, which will house over fifty AM engineers, technicians and application specialists.
Mauerer commented at the inauguration, “We are excited to open the AM Technology & Innovation Centre in Munich to drive the integrated development of new materials, production capabilities and processes, software, automation and post-processing solutions. Bringing all the different aspects of the AM value chain under one roof is central to our contribution to industrialising AM and to offering our customers comprehensive and fully integrated AM services. The Munich Centre uniquely connects the dots between our material science, component design, production and post-processing engineering capabilities.”
Partnerships to support R&D
Earlier in the year, Oerlikon entered into AM-focused research partnerships with the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Germany, and Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, Moscow. These partnerships are designed to support the company’s strategy to extend its leading position in surface solutions into Additive Manufacturing. In anticipation of the expected growth in demand for advanced component production by Additive Manufacturing, these collaborations will also address some of the most pressing research and development challenges in the field.
Roland Fischer stated, “Innovative technology is key to our growth strategy and gives Oerlikon a distinct advantage. These partnerships mark yet another important milestone in our efforts to take a leading position in Additive Manufacturing. Our goal is to deliver innovative products and services in surface coatings and advanced materials to meet customers’ growing demand for advanced components that are lighter and with embedded functionalities. Additive Manufacturing offers cost-effective production solutions coupled with increased design freedom for even more highly complex geometries. With our leading expertise in advanced materials and surface technologies, we are ideally positioned to be a driver of this technology.”
Markets and collaborative agreements with industry
Oerlikon’s AM business is primarily focused on industrial and medical applications. Industry sectors covered include aerospace, automotive, power generation and tooling.
Within the aerospace sector in particular, applications for AM can generally be seen as falling into three types; complex engine parts, structural components and replacement parts. AM technology enables the production of aerospace parts at a lower weight, significantly reducing life-cycle costs, and for aircraft applications such as brackets, ducting and seat belt buckles, Oerlikon states that AM can be leveraged for weight and flow optimisation, sound reduction and near-net part substitution. AM is also being used in aero engine applications to integrate components, reducing part counts and mass for compressor vanes, diffusers, acoustic attenuation, heat exchangers and more.
It was therefore a natural fit when Oerlikon signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the 2017 Paris Air Show with GE Additive and its Concept Laser and Arcam businesses. The agreement included the provision of additive machines and services to Oerlikon, while Oerlikon became a preferred component manufacturer and materials supplier to GE Additive and its affiliated companies. GE and Oerlikon also agreed to collaborate on AM machine and materials research and development over the five-year period of the agreement.
At the time of the agreement, Mohammad Ehteshami, Vice President and General Manager of GE Additive, commented, “GE Additive and Oerlikon both understand the transformative power of Additive Manufacturing. This is further proof that the adoption rate of additive is growing rapidly and we’re proud to partner with Oerlikon.” From Oerlikon’s perspective, this arrangement will significantly strengthen its ability to meet the growing demand for additive components and materials for a variety of industry sectors.
Oerlikon believes that success will come from offering the complete AM process chain to its industrial and medical customers, becoming a single source for a full suite of integrated services for end-to-end component manufacturing, from materials, design and applications engineering to series production and post-processing. This, it states, will help customers reduce product development times and production costs, shorten their supply chains and increase the reliability, performance and sustainability profile of their AM activities.
In order to place themselves in a position to deliver on this, the company has moved quickly and decisively. In a period of just twelve months, it has become a leading player in the international AM industry through significant investments and acquisitions. There is no doubt that such developments will positively contribute to the continued growth of AM as the industry moves towards series production at a rapid pace.
The company has already demonstrated, through its organisation of the impressive 1st Munich Technology Conference (covered elsewhere in this issue), that it is open to working in collaboration with the wider community to collectively drive forward the growth of Additive Manufacturing.
Oerlikon AM GmbH