Metal-based additive manufacturing: about to take off?

Major industrial companies have been making serious acquisitions lately, seeking to strengthen their capabilities with metal additive manufacturing. Brent Balinski spoke to Mark Cola, co-founder and CEO of Sigma Labs, about what it all means.

The last few months have been big ones for industrial, no-gimmick 3D printing, for areas including aerospace.

In early September, GE Aviation – already a leading adopter – announced that it would spend $US 1.4 billion acquiring Germany’s SLM Solutions and Sweden’s Arcam.

The two European companies manufacture machines that use lasers and electron beams, respectively, to fuse metal powders – including titanium alloys – as well as offer expertise in areas such as powder metallurgy and software.

The month before this, Siemens announced it was upping its stake in the UK’s Materials Solutions”, a SLM-focussed engineering business, to 85 per cent. intending to use this acquisition for applications within its power and gas division.

Pete Basiliere, Research VP at technology watchers Gartner, called the acquisitions “indicative of how 3D printing has moved mainstream within enterprises”.

This year has also seen the first delivery of an airplane, an Airbus A320neo, containing one of GE/Safran’s LEAP 1A engines (over 11,000 have been ordered so far, each containing up to 20 3D printed fuel nozzles).

According to Mark Cola, a metallurgical engineer and CEO/co-founder of Sigma Labs, the recent developments may help catalyse the 3D printing industry.

Sigma was established in 2005 by Cola and others at Los Alamos National Labs’ Metallurgy Group. It has created in-process quality inspection systems with and for customers including GE Aviation and Honeywell Aerospace, and is well-placed to comment on what the current moment means for metal-based 3D printing.


Unsurprisingly, Cola believes quality assurance is an area that still needs real attention, calling it a “grand challenge” for industry.

It’s apparent that 2016 is a big year for additive manufacturing for manufacturers. Conversely, established 3D printing companies – such as 3D Systems – have shown they are much, much less interested nowadays in the consumer side of things.

For those interested in enterprise-grade metal additive manufacturing, there are reasons to be excited.

Read on for an interview with Cola, where he provides some overall context to the recent acquisitions and explains where progress needs to be made.

Manufacturers Monthly: Do you think the recent announcements by GE and Siemens represent a coming of age for metal AM? How could this catalyse the industry?

Mark Cola, CEO, Sigma Labs: Sigma was delighted to hear of GE’s acquisition of Arcam and SLM Solutions. The recent acquisition in the fast-growing aerospace market of AM is in some respects much expected. GE has been very vocal about its 3D printing activities for quite some time now. It seems most days you hear about some other 3D printing activity GE has engaged like their $40M CATA – Center for Additive Technology Advancement facility outside of Pittsburgh, PA. Also, while GE Aviation’s recent acquisitions may ultimately help to catalyse the 3D industry broadly speaking, GE’s shareholders will no doubt take a much more parochial view as must its CEO.

MM: GE spoke of the acquisition of Arcam and SLM Solutions as complementary. What role does EBM meet for their purposes that SLM cannot and vice versa?

MC: Clearly, both acquisitions—while strategic in nature—also appear to the outside world to fulfill immediate and near-term tactical needs as well. For instance, GE Aviation has been quite open about production demands for its new LEAP engine fuel circuit nozzle. Yet it no doubt must be in planning to meet its looming 3D metal printing capacity needs for other identified applications. With that said, it appears that buying a machine manufacturer or two must afford it the opportunity to purchase equipment at a substantially reduced price, perhaps at cost, thereby saving substantial capital equipment budgets. Recall that in 2013, GE acquired Avio Aero (a major client of Arcam). Avio Aero is estimated to enter production in 2018 for TiAl [titanium aluminium alloy] components for its GE9X engine fabricated using EBM technology. Avio will need to assure it has sufficient capacity to meet its coming production requirements, so acquiring both Avio and Arcam appear to be quite complementary.

MM: GE will also be acquiring Arcam’s powder metallurgy expertise. Could you please tell me how significant this IP is? I know Alcoa is investing heavily in powder production also, and has mentioned suitable, aerospace-grade powders for printing are not widely available.

MC: It appears to make sense that Arcam was building verticals: EBM Systems (Arcam AB); metal powders (AP&C, Montreal); and contract manufacturing (DiSanto, Shelton, US).  Such a vertical construct appears in line with other OEM 3DP machine manufacturers that need to ensure their clients have access to the highest-quality metal powders and parts manufacturing. Furthermore, it appears to help to span the gaps between upstream and downstream processing steps, e.g., from powder to process to application. More to the point, GE Aviation gains immediate access to metal powder expertise similar to its 2013 acquisition of Morris Technologies, wherein it gained immediate access to expertise in industrialisation and Design for Additive Manufacturing using DMLS.”

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MM: What improvements need to be made in terms of predicting and preventing warping in printing larger metal parts need to be made by engineers? What is the path forward?

MC: Control of thermal history is the key to part quality, residual stress and distortion concerns for metal AM.

MM: How has your company’s PrintRite3D assisted in quality and productivity improvements for users such as GE?

MC: One of the grand challenges remaining is assuring quality across the supplier base.  Agencies here in the U.S.—like the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration]—are very concerned and rightly so.  Until the metal AM industry at large realises the path forward is a third-party platform independent approach to quality assurance and process control, the newly forming metal AM supplier base will be stressed to conform to changing and varying QA requirements driven by end users like GE Aviation, Honeywell Aerospace and others.

Sigma sees an opportunity to be a leading supplier of third-party platform independent IPQA-enabled [in-process quality assurance] PrintRite3D QA software for aerospace production applications.

Lastly, for some time, Sigma has been working with GE’s aerospace business unit, GE Aviation, through our Joint Technology Development Agreement as well as a principal team member of its America Makes-sponsored program for IPQA for aerospace components.

MM: Where must improvements come (better, faster, cheaper, whatever) from for the use of metal additive to increase further? On a related note, what areas are on the cusp of major improvements?

MC: Despite the outstanding promise of 3D printing and additive manufacturing for critical metal parts, improvements must come in three areas, namely: consistent quality, process reliability and productivity or speed to ensure growth and cost-effectiveness of current and future applications.

One future area that appears to be on the cusp is topology optimisation for 3D printing.  Topology optimisation determines the most-efficient material layout to meet the exact performance requirements of a part. It takes into consideration the given space allowed, load conditions of the part and maximum stresses allowed in the material. Each year, we see new applications and challenges coming forth—from the now-famous GE aircraft bracket to the annual Design for Additive Manufacturing Challenge 2016 (http://additiveworld.com/Design-challenge) by Additive Industries NV (http://additiveindustries.com).


Finally, another fast-approaching area on the cusp is the challenge posed by the emerging Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). As new 3D printing machines come on line and enter service, they—along with their installed-base counterparts—will need to be connected to the IIoT to realise the gains possible with the intersection of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT).

MM: Lastly, Australia has worked quite hard on developing titanium processing tech and we are fortunate to have excellent ores, but almost all our titanium that is exported is exported as titanium dioxide. Do you see the opportunities in titanium powder production as an area where there is a lot of potential in the future? Can you see demand for this taking off due to AM demand in aerospace and medical?

MC: Titanium powder processing and titanium powder sales should continue to benefit from increased use of 3D printing. Aerospace, biomedical and automotive applications appear well-positioned to lead wide-scale adoption and use of titanium components for applications requiring increased strength-to-weight ratios.

Story images: Sigma Labs.

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