3D printing as an integral part of the overall process

Text: Franc Coenen, Photos: EOS, Franc Coenen —  2019/06/15

With the NextGenAM project, EOS, Daimler and Premium Aerotec have largely automated additive manufacturing. It illustrates what AM series production of the future could look like.

With the NextGenAM concept, EOS, Daimler and Premium Aerotec are taking additive manufacturing (AM) of metal parts to a new level and paving the way for industrial series production. AM becomes scalable, the production of each part is reproducible. Thanks to the high degree of automation, unit costs can be reduced by up to 50 percent.

»With this project we have reached a milestone. At the same time, it is a motivation to continue, because the work has only just begun,« said Adrian Keppler, CEO of EOS, recently at the official project conclusion in Varel. Here, the three project partners presented the results of two years of »free thinking« about the industrialization of additive manufacturing: an AM production line that produces almost without manpower components around the clock. The largely automated production process also includes powder removal, quality assurance, heat treatment and built platform removal. The heart of the process is a 3D metal printer EOS M 400-4. In post-processing, up to 98 percent of the powder is removed automatically at the unpacking station. Mobile robots take care of the transport.

Balance in production planning

The brain of the NextGenAM production line is the simulation software which was developed by the project partners to calculate the optimal material flow for each job that comes out of the ERP system. And here it is not just a question of filling the construction chamber of the EOS M400-4 to the last square centimetre. This may make post-processing more expensive and automatic removal of parts impossible. What's more important is the balance between optimal filling and efficient post-processing. The software calculates various scenarios, also taking into account the number of products per batch and component quality. According to Professor Marc Sachon of the IESE Business School, additive manufacturing is thus becoming more flexible and closer to industrialization. »Because in the future, you will no longer have to produce exclusively for one industry.«

More cost-effective with automatization

The NextGenAM project shows that series production of metal components can become more cost-effective. »Digitization has made the AM process flexible and scalable,« explained Oliver Neufang, one of the Daimler employees involved in the project. The costs were greatly reduced by the automatization around the actual 3D printing process. »The cost share of the 3D printing process averages 30 percent of total costs. So, if you want to save costs, you have to look at the next steps in the process.« Since the AM production line in Varel performs all post-processing steps, including QA inspection, almost without manpower the component costs could be partially halved. »This makes additive production interesting for large series,« Neufang says.

For Adrian Keppler, the final result of the project is a milestone. »It shows that it is not just about 3D printing, but that it is an element in the overall process. Only if the entire process works properly, we can take the step towards industrialization.«

Turning point reached

Keppler expects that it will be possible to further reduce costs in the near future. According to Thomas Ehm, CEO of Premium Aerotec, the new production line has already reached »the turning point« in terms of costs. In addition to component costs, speed and lightweight construction are other topics that still need to be worked on. Jasmin Eichler, Head of Corporate Research at Daimler, sees cooperation between different companies as the right way to also tackle future challenges. »We have to solve them together. I expect we are going to do so in five years’ time.« There is no doubt among the project partners that 3D metal printing will make a breakthrough in the industry. Premium Aerotec 3D is already printing parts for Airbus in series production. »There is no alternative,«said Thomas Ehm, who also confirmed that an audit of the AM production line in Varel according to the VDA 6.3 standard is in preparation.

AM brings production back again

Berend Lindner, State Secretary for Economic Affairs, Labour, Transport and Digitisation in Lower Saxony, pleaded at the official project conclusion in Varel for continued investment in the development of AM technology. He describes AM as a key technology for aerospace, automotive and other industries. »Lower Saxony wants to take a leading position in lightweight construction and AM, because these are the key technologies of tomorrow.« AM could strengthen the future position of production companies such as Premium Aerotec in the region and bring production from low-wage countries back to Germany.