After making Worcester-based Materials Solutions an integral part of its AM strategy, Siemens is now scaling up. The plant has been expanded with a £27/€30 million investment that will turn the West Midlands facility into a full scale 3D printing factory, creating 50 skilled jobs. 3DPMN caught up with Phil Hatherley, General Manager at Siemens Materials Solutions, to talk about the company’s amazing track record in advanced AM, and its future plans. The factory, due to open in September, will enable it to increase its fleet of 3D printing machines in Britain from 15 to 50 over the next five years.
How did your interest for AM and in Material Solutions specifically begin?
“It started from looking at the technology, the actual manufacturing technology. Once you’ve got to a part it’s just the beginning. You still have to go through all the post-processing, which I think is often overlooked. There is the support removal, finishing and blasting. In the industry we like to talk about the fun digital production part but we hide the rest. That how I became more deeply involved in Material Solutions specifically and I was quite enlightened by it. It’s very similar to a foundry in a lot of ways. So , after ten years at Siemens – of which four years in Berlin and four years in the States – I came back to the UK: I got involved with Material Solutions when we Siemens took an eighty-five percent majority stake acquisition, in August 2016.
What is exactly is Material Solutions’ core business?
“The company started around twelve years ago, in 2006, or twelve years ago as an AM service. Our current focus is on the creation of a whole productive cluster and, for once, starting with a component-specific perspective. We specialize in exotic alloys, such as nickel superalloys, titanium and steels.”
Do you develop new materials for AM?
“Not exactly. What we do is we make sure that a component can be optimally printed in the specific material required by our client. We listen to our customers’ unique requirements and then we use our expertise to create a high-quality product based on material that the customer has asked for. If a specific material is not regularly available for 3D printers, we make it available by optimizing it for the AM process.”
Basically you provide a “material solution”…
Right, it is a high-end, full service for the industry. Not just a 3D printing service for custom production but a fully integrated, highly customized additive manufacturing service. We hace a suite of alloys that we are familiar with, materials that we have developed the optimized processes for. In many instances we have been able to tweak the process to get the best out of the machine, using the powder that’s available and then subsequent heat treatments which are just as critical. We have expertise in that area so we can apply heat treatments that get the best out of that material process.”
This leads to fully finished additively manufactured parts?
“We take care of all the post-process, yes. We built finished parts on demand. For example, for Siemens we produced an actual burner that goes into gas turbines. This is a production part, where we supply the finished product, completely machine tested and ready to go.”
How many AM machines are on the premises now?
“Right now we have seventeen, all metal, all EOS systems. Historically, I think from a small company perspective, you get to that critical mass where it doesn’t make sense to look elsewhere for another brand because you’re dealing now with the same specific contracts, the same regular maintenance and you know the machines. You know how to get the best out of them and the software is the same. So our current on-sites stock includes a mix M270, M280 and M290’s as well as M400’s. Today there are a lot of new systems on the market that are highly competitive, including advanced multi-laser machines, and some work best on certain materials. However it is quite interesting that we were among the first to install an M270 in the UK and that machine is still running today. It still provides a good product, it’s a very, very robust machine in a lot of ways. The newer M290’s are very similar, in that it’s a single point laser doing twenty to forty micron layers.”
Does it get easier or harder to work with newer systems?
“That’s a good question, I think that our advantage is that we have over ten years of experience. The idea of just being able to upload a part just print it is a good vision but in reality there’s a lot more that goes into it. You need to consider the part in terms of how you are going to support it, how you are going to manage the thermal stresses that are going on and how you are going to maintain its integral shape. The machines play a part but the key is that when we receive a product from our customers, we already have a pretty good idea of how to build it sot that it will be a perfect part at the end of the process.
Can you tell us about your current relationship with Siemens?
“Absolutely. We’re very much within the Siemens family and that brings a lot of benefits along with it. Siemens is an experienced adopter and we can leverage over one hundred thousand hours additive manufacturing components running in gas turbines. This means that we are not just able to provide the parts. We can provide expertise on how to design for additive manufacturing and even on how to design a AM factory dealing with the health and safety issues of heavy metal powders. We’re very much connected to the Siemens Digital Factory and working with them to also help improve their product.”
What do you expect will happen now that you have expanded into the new facility?
“Over the last couple of years we’ve recorded nearly twenty percent growth. I would say another where expecting another growth this year and driven from both our own demand and Siemens’. We were are anticipating more growth than that we see in most market studies however there are still some major challenges in terms of reaching out culturally to wider audiences and in the technology itself. Certification processes take time so we’re really positioning ourselves as a quantity supplier in order to help key customers on that journey as well.”
Specifically which are the major challenges that are still limiting growth?
“The fact is that if you are going to put something on a flying plane that could be a critical part there needs to be a lengthy knowledge acquisition process to go through so that everyone is comfortable with how the material is going to behave. It’s not like foundries, where we have more than fifty years of experience to go on. In that sense the work we did on the turbines was quite an amazing achievement and gave us a lot of confidence in the technology. It gave our designers confidence that this is real. Clearly there are also still issues in the design strategy. A lot of the components we receive from our customers are still based on the old mindset, with geometries and tolerances set for casting and forging. Helping them design better AM parts better creates a lot of opportunities. For example we can help them consolidate manifolds into single components so that there are no sub-assemblies required. This helps them reduce costs, but the technology also still needs to drive costs down. If we do that I think we will see a proliferation of machines that will open up more and more opportunities for the components to be produced additively. Because then it makes more sense.”
Now that you have expanded the facilities, are you considering looking into other technologies such as DED/LMD or metal binder jetting?
“I would say it’s something we’re looking at absolutely. I mean ultimately we tend to focus on a customer’s need. If we see a clear demand for binder jetting capabilities we would definitely look into it. The technology has come a long way come a long way. That’s also part of the benefit of having Siemens behind us, so that when the tie comes we can seriously take a look at and make the investments necessary. These can also include hybrid additives and subtractive machines and the systems using metal deposition processes. Many are already part of the Siemens family and the fact that we have been a pilot for many of the PBF processes actually doesn’t prohibit us to look in other areas at all. Nothing is off the table.