Potential on a par with the powder bed process
Text: Thomas Masuch; Photos: BeAM, Thomas Masuch — 19/01/2019
In the five short years since it was founded, French company BeAM has developed rapidly. Its first machines made in Strasbourg have been in use in the French aviation industry for two years. Following the company’s acquisition by AddUp, its pace of development and production capacities have increased further.
At a newly built industrial facility in a suburb of Strasbourg, men in face masks work under tents several meters high made of white plastic tarpaulins. The intense white light in the production building is reminiscent of the set of a sci-fi movie. BeAM’s employees are working on the latest machines of the Modulo series, which BeAM showcased at Formnext 2018, and for which a large number of orders have been received.
The Strasbourg-based company’s machines are built on DED (Direct Energy Deposition ) technology. The young French enterprise’s aim is to make additive manufacturing of metal components considerably more cost-effective. Compared to the powder bed method, the technology delivers significantly higher deposition rates, enabling it to further expand the application areas for additive manufacturing.
AddUp has given us the resources to significantly expand our industrial capability.
Although BeAM has been on the market with its machines for just three years, the French company wants to quickly catch up with the »older« additive machining processes. »The potential of our technology is on a par with that of the powder bed process,« says Frédéric Le Moullec. The Director Business Development at BeAM also considers laser sintering to be within technological reach: »While laser-sintering systems have been on the market for many years, a lot of R&D machines are still deployed in this area. In two years’ time, we want to be at the same industrial level with DED.«
FIRST STEPS WITH COMPLEX AVIATION PARTS
In the world of additive manufacturing, rapid developments are the name of the game. Nevertheless, the history of French company BeAM is extraordinary. In 2012, researchers at the IREPA Institute in Illkirch near Strasbourg used conventional deposition welding as a basis for developing DED technology for additive manufacturing and integrated the new method into a CNC machine. The technology was evolved under the BeAM umbrella – initially with just two employees and at a comparatively moderate pace.
The company gained a major boost to its development activities when aviation companies Safran and Chromalloy ordered two machines in 2015. Safran wanted to use them forge ahead with its AM development; Chromalloy wanted to repair flying parts, Le Moullec recalls. »We had two customers with very high expectations. These requirements have shaped the further development of the machines and the company and have determined BeAM’s DNA.«
Investments by French industrialists enabled BeAM to increase its headcount to 25 in twelve months. The first prototype was developed into a production machine in just one year and was delivered in 2016. And the reference projects generated further inquiries and orders. In the meantime, says Le Moullec, BeAM has delivered 20 machines, mainly to big-name aviation suppliers as well as test and research institutes.
The company’s acquisition by AddUp in mid-2018 fueled another leap forward. BeAM will continue as an independent company under the AddUp umbrella, Le Moullec promises. At the same time, BeAM benefits from synergies: for example, when it comes to producing systems based on CNC machines from Fives or ADF. Currently, BeAM is planning production capacities of more than 20 machines per year.
At the deposition head, the powder, surrounded by argon, flows in a thin stream onto the component and is melted by a laser with rated power of up to 2000 watts. Photo: BeAM
»AddUp has given us the resources to significantly expand our industrial capability,« explains Le Moullec. And that includes stepping up international activities, with new branches in Singapore and in Cincinnati, an important center for aviation in the USA.
FAST AND WITH NO SUPPORTING STRUCTURES
One reason BeAM is able to build highly complex systems with a relatively small team is because the company buys in many components such as powder conveyors, laser sources, and controllers. BeAM’s closely guarded technical expertise focuses chiefly on the integration of these components and on the deposition head. Here the powder, surrounded by argon, flows in a thin stream onto the component and is melted by a laser with rated power of up to 2000 watts. In the five-axis machine, the component plate can be rotated about two axes (B and C) so that additive manufacturing can be carried out in different directions, even without supporting structures.
The great advantage of the DED technology is its high deposition rate of 0.1 to 2kg per hour and its large building envelope, explains Le Moullec: »Besides, you don’t have to fill an entire powder bed to make a thin wall piece.« However, DED technology also has its limitations: Internal cavities or lattice structures with optimized topologies are not possible.
In addition, the wall thicknesses of the component are determined by the thickness of the stream of powder. In addition to repairing additive components and adding to conventionally manufactured parts, Le Moullec considers the BeAM machine’s field of application to lie primarily in areas where powder bed technology or milling reach their limits in terms of cost-effectiveness: for example, where large components made of stainless steel or titanium are involved. »We want to manufacture conformal components to minimize postprocessing.«
A GOOD FIT FOR THE WORKSHOP
At Formnext 2018, BeAM premiered its newly developed, more compact Modulo 250. The machine enables a system for automatically removing components to be connected via a small antechamber on the side, for example. »Even if we may be bringing this to market a little early, the future is modular,« explains Le Moullec.
To operate the systems, CNC, welding, and machine operation specialists are in particularly high demand, explains Director Le Moullec. »This expertise is often already available at the factories, and that’s why our machine is such a good fit for the workshop.«
AddUp was established in 2016 following the creation of Fives Michelin Additive Solutions the year before. Based in central France, the company is a joint venture between French companies Michelin (tires) and Fives (engineering) and focuses on additive manufacturing with a workforce of around 180. In addition to the DED systems, the AddUp portfolio includes powder bed fusion systems. At the end of 2018, AddUp also acquired Poly-Shape, one of France’s leading AM service providers.