NextGenAM, a joint project of Premium AEROTEC, Daimler and EOS, has launched its first pilot plant for the development of industrial Additive Manufacturing, at Premium AEROTEC’s technology centre in Varel, Germany. The goal of the project is to develop a complete production cell capable of manufacturing aluminium components for the automotive and aerospace industries.
Since the project officially began in May 2017, the NextGenAM team is reported to have investigated the entire AM process to assess its potential for automation. The new purpose-built pilot facility in Varel is currently said to consist of various AM machines, as well as solutions for post-processing and quality assurance.
In line with the goals of the project, NextGenAM’s partners state that individual steps, and the interaction of all additive and conventional process steps, are fully automated and integrated at the pilot plant, and that manual steps have been eliminated. As a result, complex, lightweight and at the same time robust components can be manufactured and the high level of automation forms the basis for profitable production going forward.
Central to the pilot production chain is an EOS M 400-4 four-laser system for industrial metal Additive Manufacturing. This system is used in combination with the peripheral solutions offered as part of the EOS Shared-Modules concept, and is therefore equipped with a powder station and connected to a stand-alone setup and unpacking station.
Filling and emptying the system with the aluminium material, setting up the system to prepare a new build and unpacking built components from the powder bed can be carried out independently of and parallel to the actual AM build process. This significantly increases productivity. The additively manufactured components are transported between the individual stations in a fully automated process and under protective gas, in a container on an automated guided vehicle.
Downstream post-processing has also been extensively automated. Following build completion, a robot removes the build plate with the parts on it from the setup station and places it in a furnace for subsequent heat treatment. The same robot then removes the plate again and transports it to a three-dimensional optical measurement system for quality assurance purposes. Finally, the build plate is conveyed to a saw, which separates the parts from the plate.
Dr Thomas Ehm, CEO of Premium AEROTEC, stated, “In this project we have already succeeded in significantly reducing the production cost per part, thus creating an economic perspective for large-scale digital 3D printing factories.”
Dr Tobias Abeln, Chief Technical Officer at EOS, added, “The integration of the AM process in an automated production line is an important milestone for the broad application of our technology in series production scenarios.”
Jasmin Eichler, Daimler AG, Head of Research Future Technologies, commented, “3D printing is well on the way to establishing itself in the automotive sector as an additional manufacturing method with great versatility. With this collaborative pre-development project, we are taking a significant step towards achieving cost-effectiveness in metal 3D printing throughout the process chain. The project lays the cornerstone for the future realisation of larger quantities in the automotive series production process– with the same reliability, functionality, longevity, and economy as for components from conventional production.”
In the coming months, the pilot process chain will be further tested at the technology center in Varel and parts of the facility will be audited. In addition, production data will be collected and analysed with the aim of collating precise data on process times, profitability, and cost optimisation.