Within Germany—and even Europe—the VDMA (Mechanical Engineering Industry Association) is an influential organization. With over 3,000 members, it is actually the largest industry association in Europe! In recent years, it has formed a growing focus on the additive manufacturing industry, bringing together players in 3D printer manufacturing, materials development, AM-focused research organizations, service providers and more.
Its increasing interest in the AM sector makes sense. After all, Germany is one of the leading countries in the world for additive manufacturing and is home to some of the pioneers of metal AM.
To showcase its support for its additive members and to further reinforce the role of Germany (and its more immediate base of Frankfurt) in the global AM landscape, VDMA is once again partnering with Formnext to host a User Case Area and joint booth. We recently spoke to Dr. Markus Heering, the Managing Director of the VDMA, to discuss the association’s ties to Formnext and to the AM industry at large.
3dpbm: Can you tell us a bit about the VDMA and its activities in additive manufacturing?
Dr. Heering: VDMA is the organization for the mechanical engineering sector. Membership is voluntary and all machine manufacturers are welcome to join. A couple of years ago, we extended our membership from just Germany to include European members. The bracket of membership has always been that you have to produce machines within Europe—we don’t have members that are resellers or dealers. Today, we have around 3,300 members from across Europe, accounting for around 1 million employees overall. We also have over 37 subgroups through which we do specific work for different machine manufacturing sections.
Nearly five years ago, we established an additive manufacturing section. Here, we made an exception because we thought it shouldn’t just be for machine manufacturers, and should involve research organizations, materials suppliers, service providers, end users and machine manufacturers from other sections that are using AM within their plants. Today, we have almost 150 members in AM and they span the entire process chain.
3dpbm: In Germany, what are the most relevant industries for AM?
Dr. Heering: Mechanical engineering is an important area. Of course, we have to say that as a mechanical engineering association. In addition to that, there is the aeronautics industry, which is very important because it requires the reduction of weight and a low volume of production. There is also the field of medicine. I would say these are the key three areas for additive right now in Germany.
We have suppliers in these industries. In the aeronautics industry, we have some suppliers that are producing parts for airplanes. Naturally, we have a lot of mechanical engineering partners, and we are also working together with some partners in medicine.
3dpbm: Are VDMA members that aren’t currently involved in additive starting to look at the technology more?
Dr. Heering: It’s no more than five years ago when it started. But at that time, there was a lot of interest. We have some figures from a survey we took last year of all VDMA members about their activities in additive. We found that just 10% don’t see a future for additive in their business. More than 50% said they are using additive in various aspects, and I would say 90% are using it or at least discussing it.
3dpbm: And how have AM applications evolved over the past five years?
Dr. Heering: They have changed a bit. If you look a couple of years back, about 2/3 of the applications were in prototyping. From the plastic side especially, most of the parts were used for typical prototyping projects. This is still a big area for 3D printing, but we are seeing more and more industrial applications, like serial production. (I have to say, serial production does not automatically mean high volume, mostly it is small volume use.)
We also have a lot of members using AM for spare part production. If you have older machines and you need a single part for them, AM is ideal. Some also use it for toolmaking because it can produce parts with integrated cooling channels. I would say these are the most important application areas: serial production, spare parts, prototyping and tooling.
3dpbm: Looking forward, where do you think AM applications are headed?
Dr. Heering: I would say it will be moving more into serial production but not in a way that AM will substitute conventional production. If AM adds additional functions then it makes sense to switch. A typical example is a tooling part. If you can add cooling channels within the part, it increases the lifetime. So even if it’s more expensive to produce it with AM, at the end of the day, it’s cheaper to work with. This is, from my point of view, the benefit of additive manufacturing: to have additional functions within the part.
3dpbm: Turning the focus to Formnext, what do you think of the international trade show?
Dr. Heering: It’s the best we have! When they started with Formnext, it was at exactly the right time in the industry. There are a lot of shows and conferences for AM around the world, but I would say that Formnext is the international show for this business. We see the industry coming together and presenting solutions, ideas and what developments have been made in the last months. It is the place you have to be as part of the AM industry.
3dpbm: What will the VDMA’s role be this year at Formnext?
Dr. Heering: We will have a User Case Area, where we will show how some of our members are using additive for different applications. We will also show a bit of the process chain, because additive itself is not just 3D printing, it is also pre- and post-production.
All of our printer manufacturer members will be at Formnext with a booth. We also have a joint pavilion for a couple of members at the VDMA booth. Part of the partnership intention is bringing new members to Formnext as part of the joint pavilion to introduce them to the show. Then, after one or two editions, they can decide to build their own booth.
3dpbm: Is it an important event for recruiting new members?
Dr. Heering: Yes and no. Everybody at the show is busy, therefore it is difficult to get in touch. On the other hand, we are using the event to meet companies that are not yet members. We have scheduled some dates beforehand and will meet each other there. Formnext is the meeting point of the industry. If we have the opportunity to get new members, we will take it, but it is not the main part of our participation in Formnext.
3dpbm: The German mechanical engineering sector is a global leader in the adoption of metal AM. Why does it have such a prominent role?
Dr. Heering: The reason that Germany is one of the initiators in metal AM is the same reason that we are one of the leading nations in mechanical engineering. We have a lot of small- and medium-sized enterprises, we have a lot of research organizations and we have a lot of universities that are connected with the industry. In general, we have a lot of companies, engineers and people that like to try and develop new things.
Germany’s dual education system is important as it combines theory with vocational training. This environment is typical for Germany and helps us to develop new things.
3dpbm: As other countries like the U.S. and China invest more and more in AM, do you think Germany will maintain its position?
Dr. Heering: We try to. This is the challenge. I see the U.S. market is stronger than the German market on the plastics side, and China is investing a lot in the AM sector. So Germany has to take care of its industry to make sure we do not lose the position that we have. That means we have to invest money and invest in the sector to create an environment where we have the opportunity to grow.
3dpbm: Does the VDMA work with organizations in other countries to drive AM?
Dr. Heering: We are trying to start this. The partner country concept at Formnext is very important from our perspective, as it gives the opportunity to speak with organizations from foreign countries to establish a platform where we can discuss AM. On the other hand, we have to be careful because we also have individual interests and so do other organizations. We have to find a balance. But I am optimistic that five years from now we will have a partnership with organizations in North America, Asia and Europe. Together we can speak about the challenges of the industry, what we can do and what we have achieved.
3dpbm: Any closing comments?
Dr. Heering: Formnext is the place to be. If you have the opportunity to go, you should take it. We are convinced that additive is playing an important role in mechanical engineering and also for Europe as a manufacturing solution in the future. That doesn’t mean that we don’t see a future for traditional manufacturing: the combination is the right way forward.