Additive manufacturing adds to the range of products and services voestalpine can offer its most discerning customers and underscores the research capabilities of the Group as well as its productivity as a manufacturer of premium metal powder, the starting point for first-rate 3D printing with metals. With the new technology, voestalpine is prepared for the future.
No manufacturing method in recent decades has changed the landscape of metal processing as much as additive manufacturing looks set to do. It will radically change conventional production technologies and business models.
voestalpine is using its capabilities to further advance additive manufacturing and is establishing additional research centers and production facilities for this purpose. Specialists are working here on improvements to metal powders as well as on the design and production of metal components using the 3D printing process.
A first attempt
There was no reinvention of the wheel at the Research Center in Düsseldorf, but a prototype of a wheel bearing illustrates the possibilities of additive manufacturing (AM): A new steering knuckle that offers a remarkable performance boost was designed and produced for an electric race car. Not only is the new vehicle part much lighter – its stiffness was also increased by more than 30 percent. When appropriately scaled for passenger cars, this could offer incredible optimizations for vehicle production – when the technology has achieved this state.
Since the AM process is still relatively young and is only now beginning to be used in industrial applications, many challenges have yet to be mastered. The design engineers have to rethink how they design in order to benefit from implementing the new possibilities offered by the method. This is reflected, for example, in adapting the construction to be adequate for the load. As in a beehive, structure will only need to be present where there is an actual load. This could conserve a lot of expensive material.
New design forms for tools
Additive manufacturing also helps boost production. For high-quality mobile phone displays to be manufactured at a higher tempo, for example, the tools used to press them have to be better cooled. The task for the design engineers is therefore to plan the cooling channels so that they provide the best cooling capabilities in a massive tool. Instead of drilling or milling these channels afterward, the openings can be maintained from the start with AM, during the buildup of the tool. This construction method, known as “conformal cooling,” reduces the material required and opens up completely new cooling options. This is the subject of intense consideration at voestalpine, since in addition to premium plastic mould steel, high-quality tool steels are also a specialty of the company. For this reason, voestalpine has also introduced a metal powder optimized especially for this application into the market.
Quick development for a growing market
The fine metal powders are developed at BÖHLER Edelstahl in Kapfenberg, Austria, and Uddeholm in Hagfors, Sweden – for use of the technology by external customers as well as for the voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Centers in Düsseldorf and Singapore. Since 2017 multiple varieties of this indispensable basic material have been offered for 3D printing with metals – through an AM-optimized powder production facility that launched a year ago on new lines. Both voestalpine companies meanwhile benefit from their many years of experience in the production of basic materials for powder steels.
While additive manufacturing targets series production, consideration is being given to further development of the technology. Until 2023, according to estimates by consulting firms, the cost of the process could fall by one third. The entry of specialized powder suppliers into the market will contribute to this, for instance, by reducing the cost of the basic raw material. Further increases in productivity could allow economical production of even smaller volumes (several hundred or a thousand units per year). Current market studies anticipate larger production spaces of almost one meter and the simultaneous use of multiple laser beams. By 2020 the market could grow by up to seven times its current size. The universally configurable, “tool-less” additive manufacturing machine produces tools and fixtures more quickly than what we have known up to now while also reducing the space required for production and logistics.
What comes next?
Greater knowledge about the process and the implementation of new possibilities will increase acceptance in the market. Experience, knowledge and trust are extremely important here. In addition to further research efforts in the area of design optimization, more research is also being done to optimize metal powders with respect to their properties and manufacture – one of the core competencies of voestalpine.
Another path of development could be in the composition of steels with alloys that vary longitudinally, even with varying base metals (steel, nickel, etc.). Materials made with the direct metal deposition (DMD) process offer new combinations of properties and microstructures. The first successful trials with voestalpine steels have already been completed.