Sweden may be cold in Winter (actually not even that cold this time around) but Sweden’s own additive manufacturing technology, Electron Beam Melting or EBM, is really hot lately. Not just because process temperatures get up to 1200° but also because Arcam – now Arcam EBM – acquired by GE in 2017, is churning out some really impressive numbers. The company has been recording double-digit sales growth and – as Jason Oliver, GE Additive‘s CEO, explained [read 3dpbm’s interview with Mr. Oliver here], it is poised to grow by a factor of five over the next five to ten years.
But why is EBM technology so in demand? During our visit to the new GE Additive Arcam EBM Center of Excellence which was recently completed in Gothenburg, Sweden, Karl Lindblom, General Manager of Arcam, revealed in his opening remarks that GE invested over €18 million in the center, confident that Arcam’s business could grow by a factor of 5 over the next 5 to 10 years. Today Arcam is the only supplier of EBM additive technology however Mr. Lindblom conceded new competitors are likely to arise soon, adding that “we [Arcam] welcome the competition.”
While some early EBM patents have now expired, Mr. Lindblom pointed out that “Arcam’s current patent portfolio consists of 200 patents and patent applications belonging to 56 different registered patent families.” Arcam developed and produces the electron beam gun powering the machines internally and works with dozens of academic institutions around the world, including North Carolina State University (Arcam’s first client), Oak Ridge National Lab and Milan’s Polytechnic Univerisity among others. In addition, companies like Volvo are based in the nearby region and can provide a significant talent pool for new engineers.
Production-ready from the start
One of the reasons for its current success is that this technology represents the ideal mix between the reliability of powder bed fusion processes and the high-productivity of metal binder jetting systems. With the added advantage that while high-productivity metal binder jetting has just entered the market, EBM has been around for almost two decades.
The history of EBM began in 1995 with a master thesis on TiG arc welding at Chalmers University of Gothenburg. The company was founded in 1997 and the first in-house machine, the R1, was completed in 2000. The very first commercial machine, the EBM S12 was launched in 2003 and titanium as the base material arrived in 2004.
As Annika Ölme, VP of Engineering explained in our interview [read the full interview here], one of the keys for Arcam’s early success was the decision to focus on two segments in particular: aerospace and medical applications. Regulatory approval of EMB 3D printed orthopedic implants in Europe dates back to 2007 (2010 in the US) and serial production of hip implants commenced shortly thereafter, with the impressive milestone of 100,000 of these parts produced as of 2018 (probably doubled by now). Today several major medical implant companies use Arcam technology for both serial and custom implant manufacturing.
The key milestone for Aerospace applications came just recently, as Boeing’s new 777x aircraft completed its maiden voyage. The new plane features two GE9x engines, each of which has over 300 3D printed parts, including several dozen blades that are all 3D printed in titanium alumide using Arcam machines. Several blades (up to 10) can be printed at once in the newest Spectra H systems. Production of these blades can be expected to number in the thousands once the engines go into full production however their history goes back a long time, to when an Italian company called Avio Aero exploited an expired patent from GE to use titanium alumide in their fleet of Arcam A2X systems. Avio Aero and Arcam are now both part of GE Additive and that fleet has just grown to a lot more machines, with the target of producing up to 60,000 blades per year by 2023.
“For Larry Culp [CEO, General Electric], David Joyce [CEO, GE Aviation], and myself, additive represents a key aspect of GE’s future strategy”Jason Oliver, CEO, GE Additive
A new era for additive
With the acquisition by GE in 2017, Arcam and Concept Laser, together with AM powder manufacturer AP&C (which was already part of Arcam) and GE’s internal additive production capabilities within the facilities in Munich and Cincinnati form a powerful network that can cover all aspects of the AM production supply chain and workflow (even more so if we include GE’s CT Scanning capabilities).
As Mr. Oliver explained during our interview, “GE Additive represents the clearest example of GE’s forward-looking strategy on technology. For Larry Culp [CEO of General Electric] to David Joyce and myself, additive represents a key aspect of GE’s future strategy and we know that companies are willing to bet their entire future on our technologies. We made a conscious decision that we are going to be playing and leading in this space and ultimately our goal is to make this a tier-one business for GE. It’s only a matter of time.”
The new GE Additive Arcam EBM Center of Excellence is an integral part of this strategy. And it does represent the state of the art of modern workplaces. The new 15,000 square meter facility, triples the floor space of Arcam EBM’s previous site in Mölndal. It has capacity for up to 500 employees with production, R&D, training facilities and support functions now all housed under one roof, which allows GE Additive to put Lean manufacturing at the heart of its operations to increase production capacity. As more industrial additive users begin to make the shift to serial production, demand for Arcam EBM systems continues to grow and now the company is ready to begin focusing on other segments such as automotive and oil & gas.