Hot metal: 3D metal printing set to shine in manufacturing
Hot metal: 3D printing in metal manufacturing
Gas turbine blades 3D printed in metal by Siemens. (Credit: Siemens)

Hot metal: 3D metal printing set to shine in manufacturing

For many companies, 3D printing isn’t just for creating prototypes in resin, but also for building fully functional working parts in metal, as Jessica Twentyman explains.

One of Europe’s largest 3D printing factories is set to open in the UK in September this year, thanks to a £27 million investment announced last week by German industrial group, Siemens.

Siemens UK plans to set up the specialist facility in Worcester, already home to its specialist additive manufacturing unit, Materials Solutions, in which it acquired a majority stake back in August 2016. The new facility will be a focal point for collaboration between Materials Solutions and Siemens UK’s Digital Factory smart manufacturing division.

“This significant investment underlines our belief that there is huge potential for innovation and growth within the additive manufacturing sector,” said Juergen Maier, Siemens UK chief executive. “It is also the next step towards achieving our ambition of pioneering the industrialisation of 3D printing, and demonstrates how we are leading the way in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

As part of the UK government’s plans for a new industrial strategy, Mr Maier recently led a review in which senior executives from British industry pledged to retrain one million workers in exchange for a state-backed national plan to promote the adoption of digital technologies – such as 3D printing – across the manufacturing sector.

Hot metal 3D printing metals manufacturing
Siemens UK’s new 3D printing facility in Worcester, set to open in September 2018.

Read more: Adding additive manufacturing to the smart factory set-up

Metal milestone

The Siemens UK announcement marks a major milestone in the uptake of 3D printing in metals by manufacturing businesses. 3D printing – or ‘additive manufacturing’ (AM) – is now widely used by companies in the sector for building prototypes in resin for design purposes, but it’s now increasingly possible to print parts in metals that are ready for use in industrial applications.

Siemens’ Materials Solutions business is a pioneer in the use of a technology called selective laser melting (SLM), which uses powerful lasers to melt metal alloys to build high-performance metal parts.

It has clients in sectors such as aviation, automotive, power generation, and motorsports, and has already notched up considerable success in 3D printing gas turbine blades. Siemens UK plans to increase its fleet of metal 3D printing machines from 15 to 50 over the next five years.

Other companies also have their eye on metal 3D printing, as several announcements during March demonstrated.

At Indian IT services company Wipro, chairman Azim Premji opened a new centre for the technology in Bengaluru for its additive manufacturing arm, Wipro3D. Last year, automaker Ford, led a $65 million investment round in metal 3D printer company Desktop Metal, a Burlington, Massachusetts start-up valued at more than $1 billion. And Additive Industries, a Dutch company that supplies metal 3D printers to the likes of Airbus, Alfa Romeo, and automotive/aerospace components company GKN, announced plans to open a UK development centre at an undisclosed location.

In Auburn, Alabama, GE Aviation will this year use 3D printing to produce more than 34,000 fuel nozzle injectors for what the company says is the fast-selling jet engine in commercial aviation history, the LEAP. The engine is made by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture of GE and Safran Aircraft Engines of France. The 37-strong fleet of metal 3D printers at GE Aviation’s Auburn plant is expected to grow to 45 by the middle of this year in order to handle demand.

And there’s no sign that the uptake of metal 3D printing will cool off anytime soon. According to recent research from New York-based Profshare Market Research, additive manufacturing with metal powders is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent to reach $1.7 billion by 2025, up from around $365 million last year.

That’s good news for suppliers of metal 3D printers, which include 3D Systems, Arcam, Desktop Metal, EOS, Markforged, Renishaw, Sciaky, and Stratasys.

Read more: Analysis: Four smart factory trends to watch in 2018

Internet of Business says

While 3D printing has sometimes proved to be slow and frustrating for small-scale users, it was always clear that its long term potential lay in the smart production of engineering parts and other large-scale industrial applications. So it is exciting to witness the birth of a new industry at last.

In the future, ever more complex but precisely engineered innovations will be possible, and in the long run the smart money will be on the IP – the schematics for items, rather than the items themselves. In itself this will link through to other technologies, such as digital twins, and create a new type of manufacturing and supply chain ecosystem; one that is more personalised, localised, and automated (PAL).

Read more: Double vision: Why industrial companies are embracing digital twin technology

Read more: PAL value chains: how IoT transforms manufacturing and supply