This interview with Carpenter Additive was originally published in the 3dpbm AM Focus eBook on 3D Printing Services.
With over 130 years of experience in specialty alloys, it was no surprise when Carpenter Technology expressed an interest in additive manufacturing. At the time, the company’s in-depth knowledge of metal materials positioned it strategically to advance additive manufacturing and solve existing challenges related to materials and processes.
Today, Carpenter Technology operates an AM-dedicated division, Carpenter Additive, which offers customers from across the aerospace, medical, transportation, energy and industrial segments an end-to-end AM production service. Considering this service, and the company’s interesting trajectory (especially its acquisition of major metal AM material providers Puris LLC and LPW Technology Ltd. in recent years), we wanted to learn more about Carpenter Additive’s offering and how it views its service within the broader AM market. Ben Ferrar, the Vice President and General Manager of Carpenter Additive, provided some key insight into the industrial AM service’s organization and an outlook for the future of real AM industrialization.
A means to an end-to-end
Carpenter Additive’s powder supply service offering is part of a broader AM division and offers end-to-end metal manufacturing to a wide range of customers. The company has a strong focus on metal PBF processes, opting to offer a selection of processes and machines to meet the needs of various applications.
One particularly interesting point raised early on in the discussion with Ferrar is that Carpenter’s additive manufacturing service is not the company’s end goal. Rather, it is an effective way for Carpenter to investigate the technology, to figure out the ins and outs of AM processes.
“To truly understand and innovate in the AM space, we need to fully understand and characterize the technologies,” he said. “To be able to do that, we have to make parts using a lot of different materials and types of machine for manufacture and inspection – including CT scanners – to really understand the intricacies of the technology. We don’t just want to be a print services company but we have to do some printing to be able to develop the technologies that will be part of our future.”
Carpenter Additive’s future is still to be determined, and Ferrar adds that it could be in “materials, material characterization or even qualification.” The key issue is that Carpenter Additive recognizes how the true value of AM is in the applications, with a ratio of around 10:1 when compared to the cost of the materials used. “That’s with todays’ technology and includes all the failed builds and intricacies of a manual labor intensive process.” By achieving greater repeatability and higher productivity, Carpenter Additive expects that this ratio we will be able to go down to 5:1 and even 3:1. That would mean a lot more material consumption which is definitely a plus, especially if you are a materials company.
“This is a really complex technology, and we’ve given ourselves the best chance of being able to truly understand it. From our corporate perspective, our service offering is still part of the early stages of the technology—it will enable us to learn and understand what is going to be successful in the future.”
Building on materials
The main materials that Carpenter Additive offers through its service are nickel and titanium-based metals, but the company also works a lot with traditional steels. As a service, the company leverages its own metal powders, which are manufactured at plants around the world. In Sweden, for instance, Carpenter Technology has a powder atomization facility focused on steels; in Pittsburgh, a site is dedicated to the production of nickel powders; and in Alabama, it operates a factory for cobalt and nickel alloys, as well as high value steels.
“What that means,” Ferrar emphasizes, “is that with all the technologies and material production capabilities, we have really strong expertise on the material performance aspect.”
“To truly understand and innovate in the AM space, we need to fully understand and characterize the technologies.”Ben Ferrar
At Carpenter, materials are understood as the key to scaling up additive manufacturing for industrial, serial production. Knowing the properties and characterization of metal AM powders, as well as how they are affected by process parameters is a vital part of establishing AM as a reliable process.
“It all comes back to materials: understanding the validation and the data,” Ferrar says. “A huge part of additive manufacturing’s cost is the verification of parts. Because it’s a fairly new technology, we feel like we have to check a lot more than is probably necessary. In 10 years-time, we’ll be able to do a certain number of tests on a printed part and we’ll have the data behind it to know whether we truly have a problem or not.
“In testing today, there are so many situations where the part results come back and it’s not quite in spec. Even though all the engineers around the table might say they’re 99% sure it’s going to be OK, we still have to rebuild the part. To overcome this, we’re going to have to employ techniques to be able to mine data to support that type of decision making, because there are just too many variables with AM right now.”
Ferrar elaborates with an example from awhile back: “We have a company that we were working with on aluminum automotive components. The parts were coming out and the specification had been set at 99.5% density. We were achieving 99.3% with the printed parts so we had to tell the customer the parts were rejected. We then asked them what the standard they expected for casting was and they said it was around 96%. Eventually that could be additive.”
The 100-machine factory
As an AM service provider, Carpenter knows materials are only part of the equation: hardware is also a key part in realizing the industrialization of AM. And while Ferrar does recognize the incredible strides the industry has taken with respect to powder-based metal AM, he also thinks that the machines used in an industrialized future might look somewhat different.
The idea eventually is to take a lot of the guesswork out of printing to make it easier for people to print and set different parameters. But how much farther do machines need to go until we have a facility with 100 machines running and only one person operating them? “I don’t know that what we think of as 100-machine capacity will in fact be 100 machines in the future,” he says. “There’s still a technology step, and we’re working with some people who are developing technologies where it won’t be necessary to have 100 machines in order to achieve that same productivity.”
Presently, Carpenter has 16 additive manufacturing machines installed worldwide, on which it can be running 10 to 15 materials at any one time. These are supported by an end-to-end process, consisting of atomization systems for producing metal powders, heat treatment systems, CT scanning and machining. The company also has a sophisticated closed loop powder management system for transporting and restoring metal powder.
Carpenter is also working to advance a software system for this process chain, that collects and tracks material data and more. The software platform is remote, meaning that users can log in anywhere and access Carpenter’s material data to see how the material has performed on specific systems and with specific parameters..
A new drive for AM
In terms of customer base, Carpenter Additive has seen some interesting shifts, especially in recent months due to COVID-19.
“Six months ago, aerospace was up there as one of the key markets. What we’re seeing now and what we’re pivoting towards is more customers in the defense and industrial space,” Ferrar said. “We’re actually also seeing that the drive for liquidity is resulting in more industrial applications right now. People are looking to reduce their lead times and inventories to improve their cash flow significantly. Even industrial companies are starting to see a different value proposition for AM. In fact, we’re starting to develop some processes and technologies to increase speed significantly with certain materials so that we will be able to produce parts for industrial and oil and gas applications.”
In other words, Carpenter Additive, and the rest of the AM sector, is anticipating more investments in AM now that many industries are looking to streamline their operations and cut costs. “Where everybody’s looking for liquidity, it’s a good opportunity to employ additive manufacturing,” he added. “Especially not by making the huge capex investment to bring machines in-house but to rely on service partners to support development activities and manufacture for them.”