MTC3, the third edition of the Munich Technology Conference on Additive Manufacturing, begins next week, and its initiator and co-host, Swiss industry group Oerlikon, is asking big questions about AM. What is the state of additive manufacturing industrialization? Which industries are adopting AM at the fastest rates, and why have they been successful? How do we drive adoption elsewhere?
To discuss the state of the industry today, we spoke with Dr. Christian Haecker, Head of AM Industrialization at Oerlikon AM, about what works and what doesn’t when bringing AM to adopting sectors.
Overcoming resistance to AM
There have been many success stories in the industrialization of AM, from medicine to aerospace. However, the road to adoption is not always a smooth one. Developers of AM technologies and materials may find their offerings a hard sell — even when the potential benefits are clear.
“You still see resistance in different industries and groups,” Dr. Haecker explains. “Young people, who may have touched new technologies at universities or during apprenticeship programs, are more open to them. But if you look at different industries, you have different regulations. So there’s a natural resistance, which is why new technologies have a hard time in the beginning.”
This natural resistance is not an issue in and of itself. What can be a challenge, however, is the subsequent response from the AM side.
According to Haecker, AM needs to move away from the “evangelization” of its own technology (“fancy” elements like aesthetics should also take a back seat) and instead focus on how its technology can serve specific adopters. “We have to understand adopters’ needs and provide them with solutions,” Haecker says. “We have to tell them how additive can help and be competitive compared to existing technologies.”
Generally speaking, AM is helpful if and when it offers a value proposition. And luckily, Haecker is seeing plenty of encouraging signs, through his work with partners and customers at Oerlikon, that companies are heading in the right direction.
Some of these companies, which Haecker dubs the “secret champions” of the AM sphere, are investing in development, design and education for a small product portfolio and coming up with tangible use cases for their products, all while keeping a relatively low profile. Many are not even publishing updates on their work, the Oerlikon expert says, but should emerge “in two to three years” with a clear, demonstrable value proposition. “There’s a movement [for such an approach],” he says. “It’s not just starting; it’s ongoing and going in the right direction.”
Turbomachinery and Oil & Gas leading the way
On the range of sectors contributing to the industrialization of AM, Haecker is equally positive, seeing thoughtful applications of AM everywhere from the space industry, turbomachinery to oil and gas. “These people understand what they do,” he says. “Even in upstream [oil exploration and drilling, etc.], there’s additive stuff. Because these people are technology-driven: they understand that they can benefit if they change a design significantly, adapt it, go to functional design. They have made some tough moves.”
For each sector, however, there is a different range of suitable AM products and services — and nowhere is that diversity more apparent than in the AM materials market.
Haecker, who has worked across the full spectrum of AM materials, from polymer prototyping to metallurgy, notes how different materials have taken a foothold in different sectors. Medicine remains almost wholly concerned with titanium, aero structural companies look to titanium and super-strength aluminum alloys, while producers of turbomachinery favor Inconel superalloys and cobalt-chromiums. The space sector, meanwhile, is using various metals such as aluminum, Inconel but also newly copper. High-entropy alloys could have an important future across several sectors.
The real story on AM
That being said, Haecker is cautious about exaggerating the benefits of new materials and technologies and returns to his earlier point about not “evangelizing” AM.
“We have to understand that when we push technology, we aren’t necessarily helping the AM industry,” he says. “Every time we push, we have to provide a new stabilized process and material for customers to trust. If you come up with a super-fancy alloy, it’s a new material with new characteristics. So you have to convince the customer to change their construction design and build-up material properties and allowables.”
For Oerlikon, the battle between cautious, demonstrable success and constant innovation forms a major theme of the upcoming MTC3 event, which describes itself as “A Reality Check” for AM. Ominous though that may sound, it is really a good thing.
“With additive, we’re at this stage where it’s ‘reality mode,’” Haecker explains. “First, we have to do our own work. Yes, it’s nice to dream of new topics and new stuff, and we have plenty of ‘dreamers’ who will influence the next decade of AM, but we now have to be in a mode where we realize things. These test cases are where we drive adoption rates. We do well when we focus on these cases to show that this works and this gives a benefit, and in this way adoption rates will increase.”
This article was produced in collaboration with Oerlikon