Oerlikon, a Switzerland headquartered global technology and engineering company, generating nearly $3 billion (CHF 2.8 billion) in revenue, has become an important player in the additive manufacturing industry in recent years. The company, which has leveraged its expertise in the development of advanced 3D printing materials, has consolidated its position in the industry even more over the last two years by hosting the annual Munich Technology Conference (MTC), an additive manufacturing (AM) conference, at the Technische Universitat in Munich. MTC2, the second running of this conference, brought together over 1,000 participants, including a number of influential and illustrious additive manufacturing leaders such as Dr. Hans Langer (EOS), Frank Herzog (Concept Laser), Dr. Thomas Fehn (Trumpf), Dr.-Ing. Gereon W. Heinemann (SLM Solutions) and others. Amongst the conference’s hustle and bustle, we were fortunate enough to sit down with Oerlikon Group CEO Dr. Roland Fischer, who spoke about the company’s recent emphasis and enthusiasm for additive manufacturing.
Davide Sher: I’d like to start by asking what Oerlikon’s goals are with additive manufacturing?
Roland Fischer: Well, you know a bit about Oerlikon. It’s a $3 billion company and additive is one part of it. Our AM business is like a young plant within our company, and we are pouring water into the business now to grow it. What we have in mind eventually is to build up the additive business and bring it to a level where it is worth a few hundred million. We, at Oerlikon, are a materials company and a service solution company, which makes additive a logical step. Additive starts with powder, with materials—which is where our strengths and competencies are. We also have a lot of know-how in terms of surface treatment, post processing and coatings. Thus, it makes sense that we are covering the additive field. We can use our strong position in materials and our strong position with the clients we serve—especially in aerospace at this point since the industry is one of the forerunners in AM—to help form and build this type of business.
DS: Are you convinced that AM will become a production technology?
RF: It will become a production technology. It’s not going to rock the world completely in terms of replacing casting and drilling—all these technologies will exist in the future as well—but certain elements, certain applications will be covered by additive. Today, we are in an early stage. We are now producing existing designs and existing parts with additive technology. This is good to learn about additive and how to handle the machines and to industrialize it, but the full potential of the technology, I’d say 80 to 90 percent of the potential of AM is still untapped. Today, we describe the dimensions of a part through drawings. In the future, we will describe them through functions. And in doing so, we will open up huge opportunities in terms of weight reduction, fuel efficiency and speed. Looking even further ahead, maybe in ten years time, I think it will be a given to be printing single parts made from different alloys and different materials.
DS: Looking at the business aspect of additive, the technology requires big investments. How long will it be before Oerlikon sees returns on its investments?
RF: In the short term, we are investing money and our AM earnings in building up the AM service and the materials business. We are establishing our footprint in the U.S. and in Europe. So far, we’ve invested over $100 million, which is a major investment. As I said, additive plays an important role in our portfolio, though Oerlikon is more than additive. What became obvious at this year’s conference is that there is a shift in the greater discussion about the industry. It is now more about materials, which is something we predicted. We see 3D printers becoming a kind of commodity. We never set out to become a printer manufacturer because there are other experts who are offering them. What we do is collaborate and offer our input to the make the machines better. Overall, we see that the real benefits of the technology come from the design and materials. That is where we want to be— in fact, this is where we already are.
DS: You spoke about the potential of additive manufacturing, can you elaborate more on how you see the future of the technology?
RF: Today, the materials we use are not designed for additive. They are metal powders that are produced for other purposes. We are at the entrance stage of creating powders and materials dedicated to additive fabrication. It does to a certain extent depend on what kind of additive technology you’re talking about. At the moment, it’s powder-based technologies that are dominating. But this might not be the case in five years’ time. There are alternative technologies being introduced. We see a scenario in 5-10 years’ time where we have a couple, say a maximum of five, mainstream technologies being applied for different purposes. But for sure, there will not be 15 or 20 like there are today. This will be part of the consolidation process for the industry; and certain technologies will become dominant based on standards, certification processes and other such factors.
DS: What will you take away from this year’s MTC2 conference?
RF: Many companies and people share the same ideas about the direction of the industry. I think it’s important to have a vision because where we’re today is just an interim stage before the technology reaches its potential. What I’ve taken home from the discussions at MTC2 is that many companies have realized that we have to team up to move ahead. A year ago, it was more about protecting one’s IP and keeping one’s technology. This has completely changed. Even the big players like GE and Siemens are realizing that they can cover one field to the full extent, but another only to a certain extent. It has become clear that everybody is aligned on the same page on this aspect– everybody needs everybody. Oerlikon needs a 3D printer company and a software company as partners. Even with our major competencies in materials and post-production, there are many other competencies needed in order for all the players in the industry to be in a position to really create value and for AM to reach critical mass.
DS: Tell us a little bit about the structure within Oerlikon’s additive business?
RF: The structure is very simple: we started three years ago with a startup approach. Today, we have 250 employees and operations in Barleben in Germany—where there are about 140 people and 25 3D printers. We have a big innovation and technology center in Munich. And, we are building up in parallel a strong footprint in the U.S. We have to think about what to do and where to go. We are not Siemens or GE, we are a successful mid-sized company. From that perspective, we have decided to build an AM service site in Charlotte, North Carolina, where 3D printers are now being installed. And, we have a new materials factory in Plymouth, Michigan.
DS: In the U.S., they’re very much looking at the potential of binder jetting technologies, like Desktop Metal and HP. Do you see this potential?
RF: I do see potential in these technologies. For me, it’s a race between a few technologies and for sure we will see more than just one technology. When it comes down to it, there is no one size fits all technology. It depends on the application, what we’re talking about in terms of materials, part size, dimensions, speed and ultimately cost. For AM, all technologies still have a long way to go. Naturally, big players like HP are not to be underestimated. Its sheer size will allow it to bring something about. Having said that, size isn’t all that matters. Sometimes, it’s a smart idea and approach that is needed. I will say that today, the level of industrialization in additive manufacturing is rather basic and not yet where it needs to be. We have a printer that we have to manually fill with powder, which is toxic. This is not industrialization. This is not 2020. From that perspective, a lot has to happen. And HP is coming from that angle: all you have to do is put a cartridge into your 3D printer and it works.
DS: There are so many topics we could discuss, but what is, in your opinion, the single most important thing that needs to happen in order for AM to grow?
RF: I think the key to everything is collaboration. Ultimately, it’s an interaction between the hardware, software, materials and post-processing. Because in the end, customers don’t care for specific challenges, they want a component that meets their needs in terms of quality, function and cost. When you are buying a car, for instance, you don’t want an explanation about why the steering wheel doesn’t work, you want a proper car that you can drive. In additive, the question now is: are we able to collaborate in the right way to come together and deliver these products? This is the key.