After rising from a small independent business to the leading innovator in metal laser melting 3D printing technology, Concept Laser was recently acquired by GE. To cap off the year, the German-based company, known for its patented LaserCUSING technology, made yet another splash in the metal AM scene, by commercially launching its long awaited M LINE FACTORY, a new approach to machine architecture.
At formnext 2016, where CL also showcased new software and materials, Oliver Edelmann, Concept Laser’s VP of Global Sales & Marketing, had some interesting things to say about how GE will help boost metal AM production, and about the unique philosophy behind the ‘AM Factory of Tomorrow’.
Eliminate Downtime, Boost Productivity
Designed to boost metal 3D printing, the M LINE FACTORY production unit offers a maximum build envelope of 400 x 400 x 425 mm³ and is optionally equipped with 1 to 4 laser sources. The core of the unit is three independent modules, the dose module, the build module and the overflow module, which for the first time, can be individually activated.
Additionally, for set-up and disarming processes, there are physically separate, autonomous handling stations. This enables “optimum use windows” right through to the ideal of 24/7 availability of the machine technology.
According to Edelmann, this separation of the production processes from the set-up/disarming processes was essential to Concept Laser’s Factory of Tomorrow. “If you make the machine quick, but the process of setting up the machine is still too long, in the worst case the machine runs two hours, and then to take apart the machine, clean it and restart it takes another two hours. That 50% downtime is a complete mismatch. We had to separate those two things. That was our philosophy.”
He also explained looking at it from a true factory-model point of view. One of Concept Laser’s medical customers, for example, will have 40 machines by the end of the year, and 80 by autumn 2017. “The pattern is changing, the business is multiple machines all the time…Ten to fifteen machines is nothing.”
When that many machines are in play, a single slow process within a quick production unit can create a bottleneck, backing up the entire workflow. By running processes in parallel rather than sequentially, Concept Laser eliminates downtime and steps-up productivity.
Providing Solutions at Every Level
Another topic Edelmann brought up was how AM system manufacturers have a responsibility in helping new adopters truly understand how additive manufacturing can boost their business.
“You can provide a machine, but then you are just selling a piece of equipment and discussing a price,” he said. Instead, by helping the customer understand design for additive – for example, by focusing on the ideal geometry they want to achieve, by optimizing the orientation, eliminating material and saving assembly steps – then, says Edelmann, “you help them get connected to the machine process, and you are providing solutions on a different level than just giving the machine.”
GE Accelerates AM Adoption across Industries
As a ‘Digital Industrial’ company, GE’s 75% acquisition of Concept Laser makes perfect sense. GE has already invested roughly $1.5 billion into AM technologies, and has developed additive applications across six GE businesses, including GE Aviation. With Concept Laser under its wing, GE can now sell world-class additive manufacturing equipment and machines across several key industries.
For Edelmann and Concept Laser, the acquisition is seen as a major boost. “I think it’s going to help us accelerate things,” said Edelmann. The U.S. is somewhat of an ‘open market’ in terms of metal laser melting technology, meaning Concept Laser can channel GE’s existing reach to move in. “We can jump on existing GE facilities to really get a bigger footprint and get more a presence in the market,” continued Edelmann. “We can pull in resources from the GE group in terms of materials specialists, lets say gas flow specialists for the machines… it’s a very powerful toolbox we now have access to.”
As part of the deal, GE has committed to invest significantly into Lichtenfels, Germany, which will continue to be Concept Laser’s headquarters and will become a new German center for GE. GE will also retain Concept Laser’s management and employees, and the close partnership that exists between Concept Laser and Hofmann Tool Manufacturing will continue.