Two years ago, Premium AEROTEC, EOS and Daimler embarked upon an ambitious project to push forward automated metal additive manufacturing, NextGenAM. This week, the partners have announced that the NextGenAM project has reached a successful conclusion and they will go forward with a pilot production line for a next-gen AM process.
When the NextGenAM project began, its goal was to develop a digitalized next-gen AM system capable of cost-effectively 3D printing aluminum components for the automotive and aerospace industries. The project has succeeded on this front: at Premium AEROTEC’s Varel facility where the system is in place, manufacturing costs can be reduced by up to 50% compared to existing metal AM platforms.
“As far as the aircraft industry is concerned, Premium AEROTEC is today already an international pioneer in the field of metallic 3D printing,” said Dr. Thomas Ehm, Chairman of the Executive Board of Premium AEROTEC. “The aim now is to build further on this expertise and to bring it to bear in other sectors as well. The successful conclusion of NextGenAM thus represents another important building block in our strategy.”
NextGenAM in automotive
In the automotive sector, the NextGenAM platform is already being utilized for the production of truck parts and its potential is being evaluated for the production of car and electric car parts. At this point, the first replacement parts for trucks—brackets for truck diesel engines—are being printed for Daimler on Premium AEROTEC’s technology line.
The AM process in general is well suited for producing replacement parts, as it provides an on-demand and cost-effective means to manufacture one-off parts. Presently, 3D printed aluminum replacement parts for buses are being examined at Daimler Buses’ Centre of Competence for 3D printing, while a team in the passenger car segment is also investigating applications for AM.
One of the challenges in the adoption and industrialization of additive manufacturing has been automation, so it is no surprise that AM companies and industry partners have been and are actively seeking solutions. Automation was one of the key goals of the NextGenAM project and we’re happy to report it has been successfully addressed.
The NextGenAM additive production chain is highly scalable and is fully automated. No manual work is required at any stage of the process, from the print file preparation, to central powder supply, to the AM build process, to heat treatments and quality assurance. Even the part removal process has been automated with the mechanical separation of parts from the build platform.
The full system comprises an EOS M 400-4 quad laser printer as well as a driverless transport system and robots that ensure the seamless production of parts from start to finish. The system is controlled by a centralized, autonomous control station that networks all the elements of the AM system. Once order data are sent to the control station, it automatically prioritizes the build requests and initiates builds on the networked AM system.
The control station also enables users to monitor the manufacturing process remotely and compiles quality reports once the production is complete. The data needed for the production of a digital twin can then be assessed, allowing for complete traceability.
“We are very proud of what we have been able to achieve in collaboration with our partners Premium AEROTEC and Daimler,” commented Dr. Adrian Keppler, CEO of EOS. “The NextGenAM project has provided a very tangible demonstration of how industrial 3D printing can be used cost-effectively in series production as part of an automated process chain. In combination with the possibilities for digitalisation as used here, the pilot plant represents nothing less than a milestone along the way to digital manufacturing.”
The NextGenAM system is fully scalable thanks to a continuous 3D data string with integrated quality management. Manufacturers can easily duplicate production lines to increase production capacity, unlocking series production capabilities. Moreover, the NextGenAM partners say that as the system is scaled up, the more users can expect to save on costs. Premium AEROTEC’s pilot facility is now up and running and is capable of series-production quality standards.
Of course, the system is also well suited for small series production. In the automotive sector, it could be used not only for replacement parts but for the production of limited edition vehicles.
“Additive Manufacturing is also suitable for smallest-series production of new vehicles (limited editions),” said Jasmin Eichler, Head of Future Technologies at Daimler AG. “Systematic development of the parts specifically for 3D printing means that the production costs can be further reduced and the quality optimised. 3D printing also makes particular sense during the advance development of vehicles. The low numbers required can often be produced more cost-effectively, and faster, with Additive Manufacturing than with conventional production processes.”
Over the course of the NextGenAM project, the partners primarily worked with the classic aluminum alloy AlSi10Mg for automotive applications. Interestingly, the properties of the printed material were significantly improved throughout the project, providing superior strength and finish qualities for printed parts.
To expand applications in the aerospace sector, there is also provision for the use of Scalmalloy, a high-strength aluminum/magnesium/scandium alloy.
Next steps for NextGenAM
After two years of development, the NextGenAM project reportedly passed all of its quality checks with promising results. Now, the partners are preparing for an audit related to the stringent requirements of industry standard VDA 6.3—one of the prerequisites at Daimler for the supply of series production components by contract printing suppliers.
Daimler aims to leverage the automated and scalable process for series production of parts that have been optimized for 3D printing, benefiting from reduced weights and costs. In terms of replacement parts, the company is looking forward to further digitizing its part inventory—or Digital Stock—to cut down on warehousing needs.