It will not be easy, and there are some tough times ahead due to deep-rooted economic and social issues in our global ecosystem, but there will be a light at the end of the tunnel and additive manufacturing will help us get there. This concept emerges from our exclusive and inspiring interview with Oerlikon Chairman Dr. Michael Suess. Due to his extensive industrial background, Dr. Suess can provide a wide-reaching view of how current events are shaping the future of the manufacturing industry. And vice versa.
In particular, he focuses on the key role that innovation and additive manufacturing will play in these transitions, especially if leading companies and institutions work together to drive this technology’s adoption and governments adequately support these projects. This is what the AMTC conference was originally envisioned for, and this is what, now in its fifth edition, it has achieved, by becoming one of the most influential conferences for the global AM community.
Finally coming together
“When we started AMTC five years ago we set out with a clear focus and a consistent approach, starting with choosing the right partners,” Dr. Suess begins. “At the time there was no similar C-level event for the global AM community, nothing where you could have this concentration of experts, users and decision-makers.”
The fact that many participants cover C-level roles in their organization is only part of the show’s success. Dr. Suess and Oerlikon’s objective was first and foremost to bring people together, to share and raise awareness about the possibilities that AM could offer. “People today are much more open to AM – Dr. Suess continues – but we should always keep in mind that metal AM has a very young history. It has been around for just over 20 years and in the last five of those years we have been running the AMTC conference.” While Dr. Suess concedes that widespread adoption of AM may take longer than most have initially envisioned, he is also very confident that the collaborations set in motion by AMTC will continue to accelerate this process.
This edition will see the finalization and official launch of the Bavarian AM Cluster, which sees leading companies and organizations in their field, such as Siemens for energy and machinery, Audi for automotive, EOS and GE for AM hardware (and aviation in GE’s case), and TUM for academic research, join forces with Oerlikon and team up to invest and attract public investment to continue developing the industry.
“It has not been easy to bring this cluster together,” Dr. Suess says. “State government officials moved slowly while in the past they had been much more responsive. Our industry was quick, but on the other hand, we had to convince people to commit to investing significantly in the future of this technology and to contribute not only with funding but also with people and resources. That’s why – he adds – we had to be persistent and convinced that this was the correct approach to create a space that others can join, even those who are more hesitant and have fewer means to implement this technology but are still curious about it.”
The academic partner of the cluster, the Technical University of Munich (TUM), is a key driver of innovation. Dr. Suess tells us that the university has created a great environment for startups, raising 2.7 billion in investments last year alone. For the companies in the cluster, it is important to be able to work on such an institute in terms of combining their business strategy with a scientific approach. “As we continue to discover the new ways additive describes our future – he argues – we will also continue to explore new ways to partner.”
Be part of the solution
The results, for both AMTC and AM in general, are even more impressive considering how complicated the past five years have been, with a global pandemic, supply chain disruptions and a US-China trade war. Dr. Suess believes that additive manufacturing can be part of the solution to the even bigger challenges that lay ahead, from the energy crisis to growing environmental concerns, and social and geopolitical tensions. But to do this, the importance of manufacturing in modern society needs to be recognized.
“Manufacturing, in general, is the key because that is where value comes from, and – he argues – job creation comes from the ‘real’ economy, which of course means production. Today’s production is still mostly carried out with methods that have been around for more than a century. Many of these methods are great and will be around for much longer but they are approaching their limits. Designers need to open new product design possibilities and we now have identified a technology that does exactly that.
Today there are industries that are hesitant to take on new technologies and need to do so in the right time frame. The commercial aircraft industry, for example, cannot just add new parts to an existing jet engine. They need to develop an entirely new engine. And before AM can truly become part of the solution, governments will need to do their part to help businesses survive through a complex and delicate political and economic phase, with continuous crises exacerbating tensions that have been only temporarily controlled through the emission of money.
“From the Lehman crisis of 2008 to the COVID pandemic, governments have been printing money instead of addressing the systemic issues at the heart of the global economy. Now the Russian war is showing the weakness of a system where supply shortages, combined with a large supply of money lead to inflation. Fighting inflation triggers recessions so we are likely looking at a massive global recession – generated by different specific factors in different countries – and instability that will likely last for at least a few years,” Dr. Suess explains.
AM cannot provide a short-term solution, but it will benefit in terms of technological evolution from the inevitable scaling of defense investments that will continue to be driven by this global instability. “Defense, not attack – Dr. Suess argues – is the base for civil society because if you cannot defend yourself and your ideals, someone will feel they can overrun you, exactly as it happened in Ukraine.”
Technology driving sustainability
Investments in defense technology eventually benefit civil society and, in an even more optimistic scenario, the investments made in developing new technologies such as AM today will help humanity address the other challenges that lay ahead.
“We need to really address sustainability,” Dr Suess argues. “Things like e-mobility are great but today we are just digging materials from the soil and putting them in batteries not knowing how they will be disposed of. We need to stimulate resilience and recycling. Europe and the US are huge markets, that receive a lot of goods and those goods need to become the source of future industrial production. To do this – he adds – we have to start thinking about sustainability and recycling in the design phase.”
Oerlion is inherently a sustainability company even beyond AM […] All our coatings […] are used to extend the utilization of parts so that tools can be used longer, and machinery requires less fuel to functionDr. Michael Suess, Oerlikon
The specific benefits of AM in terms of sustainability, today and for the foreseeable future, are found in the ability to reduce material consumption and the fact that even in a powder supply chain that is still far from optimized, shipping powders is significantly more efficient than shipping final, packaged parts in containers that are largely empty space. Dr. Suess also explains that some traditional materials and processes are already sustainable. For example, he argues, “the discussion on green steel started a long time ago, and recycling billions of tons of steel today is easy and highly sustainable if the process is powered using green energy.” Oerlikon itself is a sustainability-oriented company by default. “All our coatings and as well as our activities within the polymer industry are used to extend the utilization of parts so that tools can be used longer, and machinery requires less fuel to function.” At the same time, Dr. Suess recognizes that additive manufacturing will become increasingly necessary if we need to efficiently run a world populated by 8 million people and that the countries whose population has grown the most in the past decades need to take part of the responsibility in implementing it.”
“In the early 1900s the world had 2 billion people, and it took almost a thousand years to go from 1 billion to 2 billion. Then, within 100 years, the population quadrupled. India alone grew by a billion people in 40 years, from 300 million to 1.3 billion today. They have to take responsibility: they cannot just say we are now four times more people but we don’t care about how we use energy or we’ll do it the same way you did it a hundred years ago. The accumulated carbon emissions of the so-called emerging countries in 2010 bypassed the accumulated carbon emissions of industrial countries. There’s a huge responsibility in countries like India and China and our own responsibility is to develop and provide the right technologies to help them achieve this, even to finance projects, which are boosting their economy on a higher technology level. We cannot allow them to make the same mistakes we made, simply because in our time the world was a lot less crowded. We have to find ways to manage a planet with 10 billion people living on it, in a way that everybody can have a decent life.”
Dr. Suess does not believe that renewables alone can provide a solution to clean energy demands, due to limitations in the availability of sun and wind and storage capabilities. He does not believe that nuclear fission can be a solution either because traditional reactors are limited by nuclear waste disposal and small, next-gen reactors, would be a “nightmare in terms of managing nuclear fuel distribution”. What he does believe is that the goal of carbon-free emissions by 2050, or beyond, requires a globally coordinated effort, since the emissions of large nations such as China dwarf those of smaller European countries. In this effort, he concludes, “governments need to set a clear goal, invest significantly in the private sector and let the scientists, technologists and businesspeople of this world unite, within certain boundary conditions, and race towards it.”