Making the big leap
Thanks to a substantial investment by Siemens, Materials Solutions opened its new factory in December 2018 with a view to dramatically increase its production capabilities, as 3D printing continues to gain in popularity within the manufacturing world
The opening of its new £27 million state-of-the-art factory has taken Materials Solutions – a Siemens business to a more advanced stage of its operations. The company, which is Siemens’ additive manufacturing unit, has now turned its focus on the industrialisation of the process, with the new facility being set up as a productionised manufacturing environment.
“Owing to the continued interest in additive manufacturing, it was decided that we should increase our capacity by creating this printer farm, as we colloquially call it, where we can have all the printers together and apply a modular growth concept,” begins Phil Hatherley, General Manager of Materials Solutions. “The factory is the result of Gordon Green’s vision – one of the first two employees at Materials Solutions – who has been working on metals additive manufacturing for more than a decade. We have tried to future-proof the site by deploying a flexible modular approach to the factory. There are 32 bays in the printer area, each with the necessary services, in terms of power, argon, compressed air, extraction, and networking, to facilitate the operation of two smaller machines or one large machine. One of the challenges we face, is not knowing exactly what the 3D printers of tomorrow will look like, so we need to be flexible with room to grow.”
At the moment, Materials Solutions is using less than half of the capacity of the facility, operating 19 machines, yet it is larger than most other 3D printing companies. “Potentially, we can fit 64 small printers, but we are comfortable with a mix of around 50 – both smaller and larger machines that allow us greater flexibility in our work. Nevertheless, the exact number of printers that will work simultaneously is predicated on the requirements of our customers. At this point in time, our owners from Siemens are showing a very strong demand for real production parts and that is certainly going to help us fill the factory’s capacity in the near future,” Phil explains.
A great example of his latter claim is the work Materials Solutions is currently doing on the next generation of gas turbines produced by Siemens. “There are a number of additively manufactured components we are producing that simply cannot be made traditionally. This is an excellent illustration of how a part has been designed specifically for the process, which also means reduced post-processing and support removal to deal with. It also highlights the viability of using additive manufacturing in the combustion areas, as we work with nickel-based superalloys in a very stressful, high-temperature application.”
Phil also mentions that Materials Solutions has already passed Siemens’ part qualification process and has been delivering components for installation in Siemens Gas Turbines since 2014. What is more, the company has also received orders for more parts to be produced in the future, which strengthens his belief that the interest in additive manufacturing will continue to rise.
“It seems clear to me that many large companies have started to realise the benefits of the technology,” he claims. “There is also a marked shift in their requirements, quantity-wise. While prototyping is never going to go away, we are seeing movement towards serial production, which is really exciting. Many potential customers still have their R&D divisions to prove particular concepts for them, but they are now looking for qualified suppliers to make hundreds of parts, rather than just one or two. In this respect, it is positive to see that these businesses are willing to get us qualified and put us on their approved suppliers’ list, so that we can be ready to meet their production needs.”
Following a busy 2018 that saw the development of the new factory, 2019 appears to be dedicated to settling into the facility. “We are adding some extra equipment, but, perhaps more importantly, we are also trying to establish an operations mindset where we learn how to get the utilisation of the machines up and the costs down, whilst keeping the same quality levels we are known for,” Phil maps out the key focus areas for Materials Solutions in the coming months.
“When I look a bit further ahead, I think the digitalisation of the factory will be massively important. We need to be able to gather as much data as possible on what is happening on the shop floor, in order to get a better idea of our performance, so that we can improve it,” he maintains.
“Then, on the printing side, we expect to see more robust and efficient machines. Right now, the majority of our fleet consists of single-laser printers, but multi-laser versions are now on the market – we have three already – and they will increase productivity significantly. Our task is to get to know their capabilities inside out to run them efficiently – something we are doing at the moment with a Renishaw 500Q and an EOS 300-4.”
As well as dedicated printing space, Materials Solutions’ new factory also features a post-processing area where a range of operations takes place – from wire electric discharge machining (EDM) to remove the parts from the base plates, to hand-finishing, blasting, and inspection. “Inevitably, we are planning on developing our post-processing practices, too, because there is a strong trend towards automation and a greater use of CNC tools to assist in the upscale of production,” Phil adds.
In conclusion, he discusses the company’s collaboration with Siemens’ Digital Factory, accentuating the positives for both parties. “We have set up a customers’ suite in our new factory where our colleagues from Siemens DF can come and show off some of their latest tools like NX and Teamcenter. We are keen on utilising more of their software technology and, in fact, we have already demonstrated a capability of designing components with the help of the NX system. It allows you to design and simulate your part in its intended condition. NX can also simulate the AM build conditions so that potential issues can be identified prior to build, and you can even execute the print file from within NX – interfacing directly with the printer.
“We are pleased with the results we are seeing, so we will continue to work together, in order to make a tool that not only gives us an advantage, but also supports our partners in the way they serve their customers.”
Materials Solutions – a Siemens business
Services: Additive manufacturing