“You can’t learn this on YouTube”

Text: Thomas Masuch; Photos: Robert Hofmann, B/E Aerospace, Volkswagen, Zikomm - 01/09/2018

Robert Hofmann was one of Germany’s pioneers of additive manufacturing. Today, he has firmly established industrial 3D printing in his company and even prints metal parts in series production.

Series: The path to additive series production

While some people are still discussing whether metal 3D printing is moving toward series production, additive manufacturing of large numbers of units is already a reality at Robert Hofmann GmbH, also known as Hofmann – your »make it possible company«, in Lichtenfels, Germany. »We print batch sizes ranging from an average of 1,000 to 2,000 units,« says owner and managing director Robert Hofmann in conversation with formnext magazine.

Robert Hofmann is one of the pioneers of additive manufacturing in Germany. And he was quick to make industrial 3D printing the name of the game at his company, which was originally founded as a model construction firm. As early as 1992, this new field was a source of impetus for the trained toolmaker and master model-maker. Shortly after founding his company, he flew to the USA and returned with a stereolithography printer, putting »one of the first 3D printers in Germany« into operation. Compared to today’s plastic printers, the device was quite expensive »and didn’t always deliver the desired results«. Multiple tests were required before the first usable parts could be produced. Nevertheless, he was so fascinated by the technology that his company soon had many more printers.

»We want to be involved in component development at the customer’s premises.«

GETTING STARTED IS NOT EASY TODAY

Thanks in part to additive manufacturing, Robert Hofmann GmbH is developing rapidly and now employs more than 300 people in Lichtenfels and at its facilities in Spain and China. At the same time, the company’s hometown of Lichtenfels in Upper Franconia has evolved into an important center of additive manufacturing in Europe, thanks to the founding of Concept Laser, which he and his family actively supported. Unlike in the early 1990s, the technology is now faster, more reliable, and more broadly based.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that getting started in additive manufacturing has become easier for companies, especially in the metal sector, says Robert Hofmann. Unlike in the early years of 3D printing, »today you need not only a printer, but also facilities for design and finishing, furnaces, a lab, quality control and certifications,« explains the 55-year-old entrepreneur. And he predicts a tough market environment for companies specializing purely in printing and delivering parts: »There will be a great many of them. But that’s not the business we’re in.«

For more than ten years, Robert Hofmann has also been printing metal serial components and takes an end-to-end approach to this task. In addition to production, the process includes design, finishing, and quality control. Sometimes customers come with a part that was milled in the past and now needs to be printed. »This usually makes little sense, but it’s often the starting point for meeting with the customer and thinking about how to further improve the part,« explains Robert Hofmann.

To make the most of the possibilities of additive manufacturing, he continues: »We want to be involved in component development at the customer’s premises.« This entails more time and effort, »and sometimes it can take two years before a decent part is printed«. But this enables useful additive components to be developed, which often enhance the next generation of the end product and create added value.

AM INTEGRATED INTO MODERN PRODUCTION PROCESSES

The success of additive manufacturing at Robert Hofmann GmbH is also due to the integration of this technology into a modern and partially automated production process that includes post-processing and quality assurance. In addition, Robert Hofmann invests heavily in expanding his company. A new hall, with a footprint of 2,000 square meters, already houses 15 additive machines – from Concept Laser, of course – and many more are set to follow.

Alongside additive manufacturing, Robert Hofmann offers other, conventional manufacturing methods such as milling or injection molding. After all, 3D printing is not always the best solution. Currently, classic production generates more revenue, »but we want to continue growing strongly with 3D printing,« states Robert Hofmann’s son Oliver, who has been a member of the management board since August and intends to follow in his father’s footsteps.

As a service provider, Robert Hofmann also depends on whether his customers are convinced of the advantages of additive manufacturing and whether they adapt their designs. »Most of our customers are pretty open to changing the design of their parts,« says Oliver Hofmann. When customers visit Lichtenfels, they often find the company’s enthusiasm for additive manufacturing contagious.

At the end of the day, customer contact is crucial for service providers in the additive space, says Robert Hofmann. »The decisive factor here is the company’s own technical expertise,« adds Oliver Hofmann. »After all, industrial 3D printing is not something you can learn on YouTube.«

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