Metal processing is being completely rethought at the newly opened voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center in Düsseldorf. The first parts to come out of the 3D printer demonstrate the possibilities.
The laser whips back and forth over the grey powder, emitting bright sparks. The metal surfaces which will soon be part of a bracket are visible just for a moment. Every time the laser beam has fused a layer of metal powder, the component is lowered slightly and covered with a new layer of powder. This method makes it possible to build up even the most complex and delicate of components, layer by layer–a task which would either involve huge effort or prove impossible using conventional production techniques. Components with cavities, for example.
Innovative process of metal additive manufacturing
In simple terms, the innovative metal additive manufacturing process means printing metal parts in 3D. More precisely, laser sintering is a process in which 3D construction data is used to build parts, layer by layer, from metal powder. The raw materials can be metallic materials such as voestalpine Group steels, titanium or aluminium alloys–all in powder form, and as fine as a human hair. During selective beam smelting, which includes laser sintering, a laser beam generates sufficient heat to sinter the contours of a part on the surface of a bed of powder. The material solidifies, forming a solid layer. Then the supporting plate is lowered by the thickness of a single layer, and another layer of powder is added. The procedure is repeated until the part is complete. The excess powder is subsequently sieved and reused.
The most complex shapes with no loss of material
As with any laser sintering process, patience is required, even at the new voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center (AMC) in Düsseldorf which was officially opened on September 14, 2016. “Printing a chassis component the size of a coffee cup can take up to ten hours,” explains Managing Director Eric Klemp. However, this can still be faster than turning, milling or eroding complex parts. The process can be used to produce components impossible to manufacture using other techniques. That’s why experts see particular potential for laser sintering in niche sectors. Replacement parts for classic cars can be as easily produced on the 3D printer as customized hip joints or lightweight brackets for aircraft cabins. In contrast to conventional processes, laser sintering involves no material waste: nothing is removed from the part to form chippings, instead the raw material is systematically applied to form the part.
Currently two laser sintering facilities stand in the middle of the hall at the voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center. They will be joined by a third before the end of the business year. “We made space to grow,” says Klemp. To date everything has gone to plan: in April 2016 Klemp and his colleagues–the majority mechanical engineers, like Klemp, and industrial engineers–moved into the new office space. Six employees now work at the AMC, and demand for expertise and resources continues to grow.
Rethinking and shaping the future
The employees at the AMC are expected to think outside the box and branch out into new directions. “We’re not trying to do things the way we’ve always done them, instead we’re looking for completely new solutions,” says Reinhard Nöbauer, member of the Management Board of the Special Steel Division. The AMC is part of the Value Added Services business unit, his area of responsibility. The development and test center is involved in more than simply research into metal powder. Knowledge is being gathered about the manufacturing of components and their application across the entire Group, in order to provide customers with expert advice at a later stage. However, despite the potential, the technology is still in its infancy. “Here at the competence center we are building up the knowledge we need to equip us for the future, and help shape the future,” says Nöbauer.