Phil Hatherley, GM of Siemens Materials Solutions, had anticipated it in the latest exclusive interview with 3D Printing Media Network, but words and photos can only paint a part of the picture. Seeing things in person, especially when it has to do with AM, is an entirely different matter. That’s why I took up Mr. Hatherely on his invite to visit the new $30 million Siemens Materials Solutions AM factory of the future, which is now approaching the final stages of construction.
Acquired by Siemens in 2016, Materials Solutions is an impressive company. It works with some of the most demanding companies in the world, including those in aerospace, motorsport, space, Siemens and others. The company is hyper-specialized on metal powder bed fusion. It does not work with deposition systems or with polymers. CNC’s here are only used for part finishing, not for any type of subtractive digital productions. It is so specialized that up until now Materials Solutions has focused on EOS equipment. Mr. Hatherley explains. We know the EOS’ systems and have focused on making the process as reliable and repeatable as possible with as many key materials as possible. With the fast pace of technical advancements, we will continue to develop our technology on AM Systems which fulfill our high expectations towards quality, cost, and industrialization of AM.”
Interestingly, however, one of the pieces on the table in front of me comes from a Markforged system. “Siemens is invested in them so it gives us an opportunity to look at other technologies and processes,” Mr. Hatherley out. In addition, Siemens NX software lets companies work with AM systems from multiple manufacturers so integrating other systems would not be impossible. However, it’s clear that in the Siemens Materials Solutions vision the machine is part of a carefully engineered end-to-end workflow and that this process needs to be standardized as much as possible.
This has been clear from the very beginning. Today Siemens Materials Solutions has its AM production lines in two buildings. One is the original location and the second is a larger building next to it. The section of the original facility that houses the 3D printers is shaped like an “L”. The very first EOS M270 purchased by the company (the first EOS M270 installed in the entire UK) is at the beginning of the “L”. As you proceed along the L-shape you can witness the evolution of EOS’s medium size SLM systems, with the M280 and then the M290 and multiple lasers. Clearly, the company planned for expansion and growth since the beginning. Everything is incredibly orderly, and the powder is almost completely confined to the building chambers. Every working area represents a cell and is generally dedicated to a specific material. There is even a wall section separating the “noisier” parts of the AM systems.
When the original location became too small, Materials Solutions moved into the larger facility next door. Here it was possible to install the new M400’s. This area houses several powder-removal and sieving stations, finishing stations, many printed parts and lots (and lots) of metal powder containers from their powder suppliers. This is also where the new modular production cell is being tested. This new setup is a rectangular area that encompasses one M400 class system and two M290 class systems parallel to it. This module is going to be repeated many times in the new production plant, which is literally gigantic.
One of the architects of this “additive-factory-of-the-future” vision is Dr. Gordon Green, who kindly showed me around the new plant. He comes from the semiconductor industry and has now embraced AM. He was one of the first employees to join Materials Solutions and you can immediately sense that he possesses an immense and unique experience of the processes and everything that goes into making them run properly and reliably. I might not have made a great impression when the first thing I said to Dr. Green was to compare Moore’s law in the semiconductor industry and in AM. “Well, it’s actually totally different,” he explained and fortunately for me was kind enough to explain why. “In semiconductors, it’s an actual ratio between the number of transistors you can fit and the processing power they can generate – he explained – while in AM, just like in everything else, it’s just a matter of how technology evolves.” That makes it so much more complicated to predict how many parts will be produced and how many systems will be required to do that. That’s why everything needs to be modular and easily adaptable. With that in mind, we went on to see how 50 production machines will fit into the new $30 million factory.
“We began through a government fund and have continued to grow over the years,” Mr. Green says on the way there. “We could not have taken this step without the support of a giant group like Siemens. We don’t know how long it will take for the investment to come to fruition because this is largely uncharted territory and AM technologies are still very much immature. It is a necessary step to take for us and for Siemens keeping in mind that additive manufacturing is going to be the future of manufacturing for a growing number of advanced applications.”
The new plant is ready for that future, down to the smallest detail. On the bottom floor of the factory, the machines will be lined up in rows of production cells (modules with one large or two medium size machines). One corridor will be for human workers and one corridor will be for automated carts transporting finished parts to the powder removal, part removal, and part finishing stations. Cobots are being considered but a lot of the finishing work required will continue to require human intervention. For Dr. Green – and for Siemens Materials Solutions in general – creating jobs is a key priority. They are more focused on producing key parts that no one else can make, rather than reducing the costs of labor.
Each module will be connected to an argon gas line supply, to power outlets (one for each type of machine in the module) and to the computer network. Everything is already in place. Materials, on the other hand, will be handled from the top floor. Automated systems will carry the powder to the machines and will collect the unused powder to re-use it. The site also provides plenty of room for conferences, R&R and offices. Some of the rooms will be used for workshops where Siemens (and external) personnel will be able to learn about the AM factory of the future while overlooking the real thing.
This visit in many ways reminded me of another trip I took to visit another amazingly large technological structure. In 2006, just as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) was nearing completion, I visited CERN. As a tech journalist, I was fortunate enough to be shown around the facility by Paola Catapano – the former assistant to Physics Nobel Prize winner Carlo Rubbia – and Fabiola Gianotti, then the top figure of the ATLAS experiment (she later became the person who announced that the Higg’s Boson had been observed). The biggest human machine ever built was not yet operational, so I was able to see the incredible infrastructure behind it. At the same time you could feel an amazing, positive tension and excitement as this enormous undertaking neared completion, with the hope – and doubt – that it would deliver what it promised. It did, by the way, much sooner than anyone expected.
Even though it is clearly an entirely different matter, visiting the new Siemens Materials Solutions factory gave me many of those same sensations. The plant is huge. The impressive infrastructure for cabling, electronics, energy, material handling, gas handling, part handling and finishing is almost completely in place, now waiting for the machines to be installed. Expectations are also huge. Siemens Materials Solutions now has 17 systems, including M400’s and M270/280/290-class machines, and it expects to grow to at least 50 systems. In order to do so, it will need to produce several tens of thousands of parts per year. The factory of the future is in place. If it works it could serve as a model to truly industrialize AM production, with great financial and strategic returns for Siemens, and, by extension, benefits for the entire AM industry.