TechCenter Additive Manufacturing: New opportunities for industries
The market for private and semi-professional 3D printers is booming. Now, the new revolutionary processes are also conquering industrial production, under the term "Additive Manufacturing". But what is essential when printing highly sensitive components for industrial machines – instead of action figures? We asked someone who knows: Andreas Stapelmann, Head of the thyssenkrupp TechCenter Additive Manufacturing in Mülheim, Germany.
Mr. Stapelmann, at home, 3D printing has been a thing for several years now. However, you call the process “additive manufacturing”. What’s the difference, in fact?
Andreas Stapelmann: Basically, there is no difference at all. The term “3D printing” has certainly been present for some time now – “additive manufacturing” is newer and describes what it is all about in a more comprehensive way. So, it makes sense to separate the terms. In the past, 3D printing was limited to the production of conventionally designed components. This means utilizing 3D printing to produce visual objects that can be quickly examined. That’s called “rapid prototyping”.
Andreas Stapelmann has been with thyssenkrupp since 1999. He startet in the automotive area. Today, he is the Head of the company's TechCenter Additive Manufacturing.
In additive manufacturing, however, we focus on developing and producing components that really work. Components that sometimes couldn’t be produced by conventional means. With the help of “additive manufacturing” we are able to realize completely new geometries and production methods. In short, “Additive Manufacturing” encompasses the entire development of industrial components in metal and plastic for us – from the idea to the product to the process development.
But isn’t the technical side comparable? What’s the actual difference between 3D printers for home users and your industrial printers in Mülheim?
Andreas Stapelmann:First of all, we can use our printers to produce components that can be used on an industrial scale. This is because printed metal components that are equivalent to their conventionally produced counterparts cannot be produced with home printers. And we’ve got the option of using different materials approved by industrial customers. So, we can print both – prototypical visual objects as well as functional components that can carry loads, for example, because our team has proven their suitability through appropriate simulations. In addition, 3D printers for private users have a lower reproducible quality with regards to geometric accuracy and surface quality. This severely restricts industrial usability.
With our printers, we can deliver exactly this accuracy, robustness and quality. Another point, of course, is cost-effectiveness: our printers need less time, their construction space is much larger. And they work extremely efficiently. All this is decisive for the sale of our products in the end.
Classic production involves milling, punching, bending and more – you print. What’s the advantage of additive manufacturing processes?
Andreas Stapelmann: Well, this becomes particularly clear when you look at the entire development process of a product. Additive manufacturing gives companies the freedom to completely rethink their production. They can develop components more efficiently, more flexibly and more cost-effectively and equip them with new functions to meet new requirements. This ranges from more compact designs and angled channel geometries to the smallest functional structures. Using conventional means, such features are either impossible or only possible with extreme effort. Likewise, additive manufacturing can avoid downtimes, minimize production times and serve to manufacture specially tailored tools. In addition, spare parts can be manufactured according to individual requirements which would otherwise be difficult to obtain or have long delivery times. And last but not least, it enables the economical production of individual parts and small quantities, which has always been an enormous challenge.
Industrial 3D printing makes it possible to create even the most complex geometrical shapes quickly, cheaply and with high quality.
Are there business areas that particularly benefit from these advantages?
Andreas Stapelmann: This isn’t really a question of a specific industry. Additive manufacturing offers practically every form of industrial application the opportunity to work more economically and to implement special components and applications in process engineering. But if you want to hear examples: Especially in chemical process engineering, it is important to optimally mix or separate liquids or gases in confined spaces at high temperatures. This generally requires geometric shapes that are much simpler to add or can only be implemented in this way. Other fields are aviation and the shipping industry, where small quantities and lightweight construction play a decisive role. The automotive industry also benefits from this potential – not only in terms of faster development processes, but also in series production.
How can we picture the printing process from the first meeting with the customer to the finished print product?
Andreas Stapelmann: Interested customers can send us their technical requirements and design data quickly and easily via our website. This may be a simple idea, but also the desire to explore the potential of additive manufacturing for their own company. We either design the actual 3D model for the application or we take up the customer’s idea and develop proposals for implementation and quality assurance together with him. Or we take up the customer’s idea and develop proposals for implementation and quality assurance together with him. This also includes training concepts with which the customer can train his employees in how to use the technology correctly. Sometimes, however, customers simply want us to implement their print job. This is usually followed by finishing or post-treatment of the printed blanks so that the component can actually be assembled. Of course, we are just as well positioned for these kinds of tasks.
Nevertheless, your competitors are not sleeping. Why should customers come to you in Mülheim?
Andreas Stapelmann: Our customers keep telling us: “We greatly appreciate the fact that your proposed solutions are process and material independent”. And this is our very strength: While other suppliers often use isolated “use cases” as an introduction to additive manufacturing, we at thyssenkrupp offer a wide range of experience in all relevant industries. And thanks to our materials and service expertise, we have direct access to many potential customers – large and medium-sized companies as well as smaller companies where an own printer is not worthwhile or client that may have reservations about entering additive manufacturing but trust us as an experienced industrial group. Here, it is important to complement our strengths as an industrial group, our engineering expertise and our customer base with start-up virtues such as speed.
Can you already tell us something about current orders?
Andreas Stapelmann: Since the opening of our TechCenter in September 2017, we have gained a lot of experience in more than 300 projects in very different fields of application – and have applied this experience in practice, especially on an industrial level.
The year is almost over, the New Year’s resolutions are just around the corner. What will change at the Mülheim site in 2019 to achieve this goal?
Andreas Stapelmann: The development in additive manufacturing is rapid and fast-moving – new processes are constantly coming onto the market. This is why we have to further deepen our own technological competence both in product implementation and in process know-how. This enables us to further expand and intensify the quality of our service offerings in the form of consulting, development and 3D printing. To this end, we will also continue to develop our IT tools step by step in order to identify new areas of application, further improve our processes and ultimately implement them more quickly and professionally. In this context, we are also constantly reviewing the extent to which we are expanding our location and our capacities.
You have been working in the automotive industry for a long time. What led you to look for the new challenge in Mülheim?
Andreas Stapelmann: Until 2017, I was exclusively responsible for the research and development of drive components for many years, and before, I worked as a project manager for chassis components. I describe myself as a generalist and, as a development engineer, I was able to take on management responsibilities at an early stage. What has always driven me throughout my career is my curiosity and enthusiasm for new things. Let me say this: staying young in the head helps, even at an advanced age.
I like to think broadly, always see processes holistically and enjoy working together with people who are distinguished by their diversity. When it comes to leadership, this is more challenging, in fact, but the results are simply better. I have noticed that if you remain committed to this attitude, you will always discover new opportunities to expand your expertise and your network. In my opinion, all this is worth a lot, not only in the automotive sector or in additive manufacturing but everywhere. And in the end, this way of thinking also led me to Mülheim.
Were there any special requests for printing that you particularly remember?
Andreas Stapelmann: Immediately after the opening in 2017, we had a rather unusual enquiry from the steel sector – whether we could also print slabs. So, we had to do a little educational work on what additive production can and can’t do. I also remember the day we took our first metal print out of the printer to present it to the board. In order to achieve this goal, we had to sweat a lot, not only me, but especially our materials expert Corinna Bischof. This was really a great experience and the very positive feedback was wonderful.
Good teamwork: Besides six other teammates, Andreas Stapelmann can count on Ahmet Fidan (left): In production, he first prepares the printers – after printing, he takes care of the crucial finishing of the components.
Well, and this year you printed your Christmas presents, didn’t you?
Andreas Stapelmann (laughs): Not really, as I’m spending so much time in our TechCenter during the rest of the year. Christmas is Christmas, and this time belongs to my family. We had wonderful holidays – with classic gifts. I prefer to share my passion for additive manufacturing with my colleagues, although my professional passion is also reflected in my private life. But that’s okay, because I’m the same person in both worlds.