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'NextGenAM' pilot plant opens in Germany showcasing continuous production

05 Sep 2018

Partnership of Premium Aerotec, Daimler, and EOS to develop "series additive manufacturing" achieves first milestone.

In mid-2017, a partnership between aerospace manufacturer Premium Aerotec, car maker Daimler and 3D manufacturing system supplier EOS jointly initiated the NextGenAM project to develop the basis of a future system for series production using 3D printing technologies.

Now, the first pilot plant has just been put into operation at Premium Aerotec’s premises in Varel, northern Germany – which the partners are hailing as “a key milestone”.

The NextGenAM project is intended to “fundamentally develop the next generation of additive manufacturing”. The team has been reviewing the entire AM process to assess its potential for automation.

The goal of the project is to develop a complete production cell capable of manufacturing aluminum components for the automotive and aerospace industries. The purpose-built pilot facility currently consists of various machines for additive manufacturing, post-processing, and quality assurance.

’Complete automation’

The innovation in the NextGenAM production chain is that the individual steps and the interaction of all additive and conventional process steps have been fully automated and integrated, with all manual steps being eliminated. As a result, complex, lightweight and robust components can now be manufactured and the high level of automation forms the basis for profitable production going forward, say the partners.

At the center of the pilot production chain is the EOS M 400-4 four-laser system for industrial 3D printing with metal materials. The system is used in combination with the peripheral solutions of the EOS Shared-Modules concept. The EOS M 400-4 in Varel is therefore equipped with a powder station and connected to a stand-alone setup and unpacking station.

As a result, filling and emptying the system with the aluminum material, setting up the system to prepare a new build job, and unpacking the 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 fully automated and under protective gas in a container on an automated guided vehicle.

The downstream post-processing has also been extensively automated:

  • A robot takes the build platform with the parts from the setup station and places it in a furnace for subsequent heat treatment.
  • The same robot then removes the platform again and takes it to a three-dimensional optical measurement system for quality assurance purposes.
  • Finally, the build platform is conveyed to a saw, which separates the parts from the platform, making the components ready for further use.

Collaboration

Premium Aerotec was the first manufacturer in the world to supply serial 3D-printed structural components for Airbus aircraft. Up to now, titanium powder was used as material for this purpose. However, one of the aims of the NextGenAM project is also to qualify aluminum for use. The automotive manufacturer Daimler contributes its experience in the field of mass production – an essential aspect if the pilot plant is to be used to manufacture parts on a large scale.

“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," commented Dr. Thomas Ehm, CEO of Premium Aerotec.

Dr. Tobias Abeln, Chief Technical Officer (CTO) at EOS, says: “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: “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 realization 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 analyzed with the aim of collating precise data on process times, profitability, and cost optimization. The NextGenAM project is therefore moving closer to its goal of producing highly complex aluminum components in series production in a particularly economical additive manufacturing process.

AlluxaAUREA TECHNOLOGYAVANTES BVInfraTec GmbHBRD Optical Co., LtdFISBANanoscribe GmbH
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