With previous experiences in BMW, Porsche, MTU Aero Engines and Siemens AG (Power Generation Group), Prof. Michael Süß has seen the rise of additive manufacturing since the very beginning. Today, as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Oerlikon, he is leading the effort to establish the company’s role in evolving AM from a stand-alone technology for single parts and prototypes into a digital serial additive production process. The AMTC 2021 conference that just took place in Aachen is a key element in this additive strategy, bringing together over thirty partners that are working with Oerlikon in this effort, including top universities, major hardware manufacturers such as EOS and Trumpf, and major adopters such as Siemens Energy, who is also a competitor in terms of offering AM services.
“The importance of a conference such as AMTC is to help find the right people to work with from C-level partners to people from government institutions and academia,” Prof. Süß explains when we sit down with him for an interview after the opening panel, where he presented the day’s events along with key figures from academia (Prof. Johannes Henrich Schleifenbaum, RWTH Aachen University, Professor and Director DAP RWTH, Managing Director ACAM and Prof. Nikolaus A. Adams, TU Munich, Chair of Aerodynamics and Flow Mechanics, Dean of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering) and government (Armin Laschet, Prime Minister North Rhine Westphalia).
“Meeting in person is useful for exchanging first-hand information, networking, and tackling certain topics together,” Süß explains. “We all want for this technology to be used more and more in manufacturing applications. This industry needed a format that would accelerate collaborations. We have established AMTC as a leading conference worldwide, with participants from any hemisphere and any industry, from aerospace, to energy, automotive and all industrial production segments, together.”
From Munich to Aachen
This year the event moved from Munich to Aachen to highlight one of the most advanced academic hubs for AM research. The Munich location, which will likely be proposed again in the future, allows the conference to focus more on certain political aspects and in general on business decisions due to the nearby presence of large adopting companies such as BMW or Audi. This year’s conference also adopted a new hybrid format, to deal with COVID-19 restrictions. Previous editions had seen as many as 1,200 physical participants and Prof. Süß agrees that the hybrid format allowed many who were not able to travel to attend the high-profile talks and panels.
“All AMTC participants are convinced that additive manufacturing is the right place to put their money in. GE has spent a lot of money, Siemens has massive operations, as do BMW, Audi and Volkswagen Group. They have made massive investments in AM. It’s a small portion of their capabilities but they certainly don’t want to throw money away.”
One of the most appreciated aspects of Oerlikon’s MTC/AMTC conferences is that they tell the “real story” focusing on the many challenges that still need to be addressed for AM to be used in industrial production. The panels focused on topics such as “How to enable engineers”, and the “Roadmap to implement AM successfully” as well as the latest developments on materials solutions. In many cases, the speakers presented the good news without hiding the challenges ahead. Dr. Melissa Orme, VP Boeing Additive Manufacturing, Engineering, Test & Technology revealed that the company has produced over 70,000 parts by AM to date but also highlighted that the roadmap to AM workflow integration is still a very long one. If there are so many challenges, why do these and other companies continue to invest in AM?
Generating profits with AM
Prof. Süß provides a clear answer: “It’s simply because, besides the challenges, AM has already presented several applications that allow companies to generate profits right away—he explains. One thing is to qualify all of AM for production, and that will require more than a decade. Another is to qualify a single application. While you do have to consider ramp up and CapEx costs—Süß continued—it’s like any R&D program. Whereas some programs can require 15 to 20 years until they generate profits, there are specific AM applications where you can start generating revenues and profits in a matter of a few months or a couple of years at most.”
At the same time, Prof. Süß recognizes that the final goal is that of establishing the entire industry. That—he concedes—will require a 15 year period to get significant returns on investment that cover expenditures as well as interests and profitability. However, the implementation of AM is seen as inevitable: those who don’t make the first steps now will be left behind and it will cost billions to participate later.
“The automotive industry matured between the 1930s and today. In a mature industry any technical improvement costs a lot and brings few benefits,” he explains. “In additive, we do not have an industry yet. But we do have a market and we are already producing parts in volumes. More applications are on the way. More people are realizing that they need to implement additive to produce the applications and parts that they are going to need in their businesses.
“If you look at the future of aircraft, almost one-third of engine components will have to be 3D printed in order to meet specifications,” says Prof. Süß. “The technology still has a long way to go: they have to improve the yield rate on powder, we need more robust processes and optimization of productivity within the printer. But the AM has made giant steps if we look at where it was just four years ago.”
This rapid technological evolution brings about other issues as well, such as rapid machine obsolescence or the need to continue to use outdated equipment in certain long-term aerospace programs because the machines have been qualified for that application.
“That’s why we need AMTC. After previous editions, we saw that companies tackled exactly the issues that had emerged during the conference,” Süß confirms. “And we want to ride the momentum that we have built up in previous conferences: after addressing the issue of productivity, we want to look at how to improve University curricula. We work very closely with top universities in Germany such as the Technical University of Munich and RWTH Aachen, as well as institutions in Vienna, Moscow and San Diego. However, we still see programs for mechanical and electrical engineers while we would like to see programs that address manufacturing engineering.”
A win-win opportunity for Europe
Even in the face of so many challenges at the industrial, institutional and academic level, Prof Süß still sees Europe as the leading area in terms of AM opportunities. However, he also highlights that China is the most dynamic. “In 2014 I visited China and AM was almost non-existent. In 2019, when I returned, it had grown significantly. There are social and political reasons behind this. In Europe we need to find economic reasons to justify a technological direction, we need to make a business out of it. In China, the government decides to make a strategic investment and executes it. If we don’t watch out, they will outperform us. At the same time, most of the largest AM adopters are Western companies with very large budgets so that still gives us an advantage.”
Oerlikon has invested a lot in AM over the past five years. Any public company needs to meet the market’s demands and investments must fit within the business line. Shareholders won’t accept a decreasing EBIT just because a company decides to arbitrarily allocate resources towards the integration of AM. It must make business sense, especially in Europe and North America. “We can allocate R&D funds, even some other internal investment funds but we also need external support,” says Prof. Süß. “If AM received even a fraction of the funds that e-mobility receives, it would help to accelerate. And that is exactly what may happen. Traditional industries, including the automotive industry, are now seeing massive workforce declines in Europe. Additive is offering a new opportunity to create jobs in a new industry. Our German additive business this year is growing by 80%. If we can maintain growth of 30%-50% we will be fine.”
To obtain more external support, all companies invested in additive need to cooperate. “If we don’t, we will just fight for crumbs,” says Prof. Süß also recognizing that AM can play a role even in helping traditional manufacturing industries improve performance significantly using additive for tools. “It’s not just about final parts, AM can also be used more to dramatically accelerate production of tools and molds,” Prof. Süß adds, “but companies need to embrace the future. The future can only be enabled by solutions from the future. If you stick with the past and celebrate it – it’s good to know where you come from – but it can be a burden.”
The point that Prof. Süß is making is that the market itself, along with other social concerns, will eventually demand more additive applications. “Manufacturing technology evolves when companies get to a point where they cannot sell their products anymore and need to innovate,” he clarifies. “This can happen because of price pressure or for environmental concerns leading to lack of social acceptance. Then you have no choice but to change the technology that you use to make your products.”
The global supply chain disruption that has followed the pandemic is driving more and more companies towards considering AM. Shipping powders is a lot faster and cheaper than shipping finished parts and products. Imagine if just 50% of parts were produced locally by AM how many containers could be eliminated. That would also bring immediate benefits in terms of reduced emissions. And sustainability is a major driver of political decisions today. “Even those politicians and decision-makers that have not yet fully understood how additive manufacturing can help rebuild the industrial base,” Prof. Süß concludes, “may be attracted by the environmental aspects of implementing an additive strategy.”