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German SMEs 3D-print metal parts ‘economically’

22 Nov 2022

BMBF project “IDEA” yields two demo production lines – showing that smaller firms can deliver AM products.

A German business and research group have realized an ambitious goal: to industrialize additive manufacturing – and economically – for both OEMs and SMEs. The Fraunhofer Institutes for Laser Technology (ILT) and Production Technology (IPT), industry partners and RWTH Aachen University launched the BMBF joint project “IDEA – Industrialization of Digital Engineering and Additive Manufacturing”, three years ago.

As part of the project, they constructed two automated, additive production lines for metal 3D printing with exemplary performance to produce powerful high-end components such as those for gas turbines. In plants in Berlin and Georgensgmünd, near Nuremberg, metal components have recently been produced with 3D printing, demonstrating how not only large corporations, but also SMEs can additively produce individualized components in medium batch sizes economically.

Eleven industrial companies and four research institutes from Aachen have refuted the arguments that mass-producing additively manufactured (AM) components with metal 3D printing “takes too long, cannot be automated and is far too expensive” by reviewing the AM process chain in its entirety within the IDEA project, completed in October 2022.

Funded as part of the BMBF's “Line integration of additive manufacturing processes” funding initiative, the project consortium developed a large-scale industrial pilot production line at the Siemens Energy gas turbine plant in Berlin and a production line for SMEs at Toolcraft AG in Georgensgmünd. The digital twin of the factory, developed for SMEs and large-scale series production, was able to significantly reduce product costs even before construction and operation.

Lessons learned

After intensively developing and implementing many sub-processes along the additive manufacturing chain, the partners created two automated, modular production lines to demonstrate the maturity of additive manufacturing as an industrial production technology. That should encourage manufacturing companies to use digital additive manufacturing in series production. The positive feedback from the operators of the lines proves that individual mid-series products can be mass-produced using Laser Power Bed Fusion.

“We were able to demonstrate for our demonstrator component, a turbine guide vane, that the planned reductions in development and throughput times of around 50 percent can be achieved by taking a holistic view of the production chain from design to finished product,” said Julius Schurb, IDEA project manager, from the Siemens Energy gas turbine plant in Berlin.

However, metallic 3D printing is not only an option for large companies, but also for small and medium-sized enterprises. This is backed up by Toolcraft, a medium-sized company that uses AM processes for series production. This company specializes in the production of tools and injection molded parts as well as precision components and assemblies for the aerospace industry, semiconductor industry and medical technology.

“In the IDEA project, we succeeded in completing important development steps, including being able to better map an integrated, end-to-end manufacturing chain made up of sub-processes,” said Markus Langer, head of Digital Transformation at Toolcraft

He added, “Manual work steps were substituted by automation solutions, which helped us achieve higher process stability and quality. In order to use real data virtually, we also need to highlight digitalization, which must be considered globally for the production of additively manufactured components. It was also important, for example, to use VR goggles to transfer analog data, as further developed in IDEA, to digital work plans, to work and test instructions and interactive training.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The interdisciplinary composition of the IDEA project team brought together experts in turbomachinery, digitalization, automation, aircraft technology, post-processing, laser and 3D printing technology, among others – this mixture proved to be a key factor for the project’s success. This was ensured, for example, by the experts from Fraunhofer ILT in Aachen, who contributed their expertise in the field of LPBF developed in previous research projects to the consortium.

Thomas Laag, research associate at Fraunhofer ILT explained the importance of process control: “Since the aerospace industry has very high safety standards, the application of laser beam melting sinks or swims with intensive quality assurance along the process chain. Within IDEA, the partners focused particularly on rule-based monitoring of the powder condition, robust process qualification of multi-laser machines, and the further development of solutions for automated process monitoring.”

Fraunhofer ILT developed a process control system with pulsed laser radiation for LPBF, a system that can improve the detail resolution and prevent fewer shape deviations. It also reduces the effort required for post-processing and makes it possible, for example to manufacture complex geometries that have not only greater detail resolution, but also higher combustion efficiency.

In addition, a novel imaging monitoring system was developed and evaluated at Fraunhofer ILT. A high-resolution stereo camera can detect process instabilities such as component distortion or powder bed defects. Since the camera system is mounted on the coater, it can in principle also be retrofitted to existing machines. In cooperation with another partner, Jenoptik, the ILT demonstrated an AI-based evaluation of the measurement data.

Mad City Labs, Inc.TRIOPTICS GmbHFirst Light ImagingCeNing Optics Co LtdHyperion OpticsHÜBNER PhotonicsLASEROPTIK GmbH
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