The Henry Fords of Metal Powder for 3D Printing
Text: Thomas Masuch; Photos: Formetrix, Thomas Masuch — 2019/05/30
These days, the heart of engineer Dr. Harald Lemke belongs to two places: A native of western Germany’s Rhineland region, he has been living in the United States for 27 years and flying from Boston to Düsseldorf practically every month for the past five. The 50-year-old describes himself as »50% American and 50% German« and is intimately familiar with both the American business mindset and the meticulousness for which Germans are known. Lemke does his best to leverage the advantages of these two worlds, which remain similar in spite of their differences. »The combination of Germany’s solid technological developments and the ability to bring them to market quickly in the U.S. is simply ideal,« he says.
His love for Düsseldorf’s renowned Altbier and Sauerbraten isn’t the only reason why Harald Lemke clocks so many frequent- flyer miles. For his company, Formetrix – a young provider of metal powder for specific applications in additive manufacturing – he also visits customers, service providers, and research institutes in his home region. »Germany offers an excellent and broad basis of technology, along with a strong sense of industry solidarity thanks in part to the efficient collaboration of the corresponding associations. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world,« Lemke says, adding that the country also makes it possible to engage in industry- related developments where »people don’t immediately start asking about the ROI«.
That said, the fact that Formetrix exists at all (with Lemke as its chief commercial officer) also has something to do with the American mentality for making things happen. Lemke and two colleagues from the powder manufacturer Nanosteel in Providence (around 50 kilometers southwest of Boston) had spent four years researching metal powders for additive manufacturing. »The goal was to come up with a way to print alloys and hard production components directly using laser powder-bed fusion,« he says.
»Americans have that ›let’s do it‹ mindset about new technologies. Risks are seen as opportunities.«
This resulted in the material »L-40«, which became the first product of the spin-off Formetrix. The patent, which belongs to Nanosteel and is now licensed exclusively to Formetrix all around the world, cites Dr. Harald Lemke as one of the inventors. L-40 is finding a niche in the market because it enables users to »3D-print components and production tools that are harder and more impact-resistant than ever before directly and at room temperature«, as Lemke asserts with American self-confidence.
This is made possible by the alloy’s special composition. Unlike traditional types of tool steel, L-40 isn’t based on a high level of carbon content. »That much carbon leads to more cracks in laser printing because the molten metal cools so quickly,« explains Lemke, who says that L-40 avoids this problem. Following an approach he calls »new materials for new processes«, Lemke and Formetrix are opening the door to various advances, including the chance to »eliminate inefficient preheating of the build area to 500 degrees Celsius or more«.
Formetrix got off the ground in the summer of 2018 with a round of series-A funding that has involved both financial investors and strategic partners focused on the long term. Lemke sees this as a good mix, as it favors sustainable development and a solid return, as well. »That kind of funding is one of the strengths of the American market; it makes rapid growth possible for young companies,« he points out. While people in Germany often consider all the eventualities and try to plan everything down to the last detail, »Americans have that ’let’s do it’ mindset about new technologies. Risks are seen as opportunities,« Lemke adds. He also says that it’s easier to access venture capital than it is in Europe, with investors willing to take risks as long as the expected return is substantial enough.
»FOCUSED ON LESS ’SEXY’ MARKETS EARLY ON«
Halfway between Boston and Providence in the town of Mansfield, Lemke and seven colleagues moved into a modern low-rise building in an industrial park surrounded by old oak and beech trees in March 2019. The rent is quite affordable here, and Boston and its many universities are not far away. Formetrix has 580 square meters where it can print test components for customers or trials of new alloys. The company has several software packages for developing new alloys, a FormUp 350 powder- bed fusion machine from AddUp, and a laboratory for examining the quality and other properties of metals.
An important milestone in the development of screw production: the very first 3D-printed die for manufacturing lock screws. Photo: Formetrix
Formetrix is located in the town of Mansfield, halfway between Boston and Providence. Photo: Formetrix
It was back in 1992 that Lemke and his two suitcases first arrived in the U.S., where he got his start in the Texas oil industry. He began exploring industrial applications of additive manufacturing at a time when many were barely aware of the technology and was already printing tool components for the American manufacturer Kennametal by 2006. »I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped back then, but I gained insights not many had,« Lemke recalls. »I also focused on less ’sexy’ markets very early on, meaning those outside of the aerospace and medical sectors.«
Here, Lemke is talking about areas like the tool-making, mechanical engineering, die-casting, and automotive industries. There are opportunities to sell large quantities of 3D-printed tool steel in these fields, where the calculations are a lot tighter than in aerospace or medical technology. »That’s why prices are the most important factor,« he explains.
»The price of powder has to come down.«
Lemke is well-versed in this regard, having experienced the particularities of such industries himself over the years. »Some years ago, when the price of powder was less than $5 per kilogram for typical high-volume, non-additive applications in the automotive industry, we raised our price by 8% and it nearly ruined our business relationships,« Lemke says. »In today’s additive manufacturing, we’re talking about $50 or more per kilogram, which isn’t sustainable for high-volume applications in such industries.« This is the challenge the German-American transplant is taking on. »The price of powder has to come down to less than $10 per kilogram in the long term, and steel alloys can make that possible,« he affirms. »For me, every penny counts.« Some initial successful attempts at 3D printing with water-atomized powder have been a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Formetrix wants to enter the mass market. »We’re the Henry Fords of metal powder for 3D printing,« declares Lemke, who is sensing a constant rise in demand from the industrial realm in general. »A year ago, there were a lot of companies – mainly SMEs – that were worried about missing out,« he continues. »We’re now getting inquiries from more and more groups that are treating additive manufacturing as a primary concern.« He considers this important, as »even the best material means nothing« without the necessary expertise. Lemke also says that using the right printing parameters for the machine at hand plays a significant role in achieving quality results. This is why Formetrix not only sells powder, but maintains a strong focus on service and consulting, as well. »In the beginning, you can’t leave customers to their own devices,« Lemke points out. »Otherwise, it’s always the material’s fault when something goes wrong.«
To tap into the mass market, Lemke – a technician, product developer, and entrepreneur rolled into one – has put a great deal of time and effort into numerous reference projects in recent months. Successful applications for the tool-making, oil, and automotive industries have been the result. Lemke is particularly proud of one tool, which happens to be the very first 3D-printed die for manufacturing lock screws. In addition, a 3D-printed, internally cooled machine press rated at 900 tons of pressure has already produced untold thousands of parts – another »major accomplishment « in Lemke’s eyes. The components in question see use as side collision protection in the mass production of American trucks.
MATERIAL AS A PROBLEM-SOLVER
»The word ’material’ is taking on a whole new meaning in additive manufacturing, where lots of problems can be solved by choosing the right one,« reveals Lemke, who views this as an opportunity for the entire industry to come up with innovative uses.
Formetrix’s initial reference projects have been so successful that the company is already sending out shipments measured in tons. Its commercial orders typically range between 100 and 500 kilograms. These quantities are expected to increase further going forward due to additional applications and larger lot sizes. Lemke sees considerable potential in tools for forming and aluminum die-casting, for example, as well as in the oil industry and the design of functional automotive prototypes. »Right now, we’re focusing in particular on increasingly large, internally cooled forms for aluminum die-casting,« he reports. »Our initial results with L-40 are exhibiting fewer cracks due to thermal shocks, which makes the material more durable.«
To identify further uses, Lemke is working closely with select service providers. Customers located near these providers can obtain high-quality sample components stemming from these efforts. Meanwhile, the new materials Formetrix has in development are set to make things even more dynamic. Although Formetrix will be concentrating on powder for powder bed fusion machines for the time being, materials for other additive manufacturing techniques may be on the way in the future.