Joris Peels — Heavy Metal: From Fab to Lab
Depowdering sounds like something members of Louis XIV's court would have to do each evening. It sounds quaint, something from the distant echoes of the past. Something from an age of flowing frocks, necklines plunging like elevated AM stocks, wigs and chamber music undulating in the background while opulent candle lit buffets of glistening boar are laid out for the happy few.
And depowdering should be something from the past. If we actually want to make metal AM products at any sort of scale we need to get serious about production. We can't expect to be making patient-specific implants and aircraft parts to a high degree of accuracy and repeatability while continuing in our ancient ways. We can't expect to grow the AM metals business by sticking to business as usual.
A revolutionary, amazing process that can change the aerospace industry forever... that involves a guy with a brush individually cleaning metal dust off each part. We can't expect to make parts that go inside aircraft engines if we have to let an artisan determine how to build a part. We can't expect to keep people in the skies if each new individual geometry has to be, based on years of skill, re-engineered to come out right. We can't expect to have to redesign every new part, test it a few times and then find out it doesn't work. We can't expect to have to redesign, by experience, each new part for each new material. We should not want to be Caravaggio or Titian any longer, our aspirations should lie more towards the comparatively humble efforts of the house painter.
“We can't expect to make parts that go inside aircraft engines if we have to let an artisan determine how to build a part.”
AM for metals is amazing, fast and cheap. It’s just like pressing a button. First you have a guy eyeball the part, based on a decade of experience that person then adds material, maybe redesigns it, then based on experience designs supports, then you print it for like half a day, clean it all off with a brush, de-stress it, do some HIP, precipitation harden it, heat treat it, then a guy with a saw cuts off bits from the part, maybe there’s some EDM maybe some CNC (OK guys, lets get one thing straight: We don't tell the muggles we use CNC? OK?), then some shot peening, maybe a mechanical or chemical polish, then you 3D scan the part, then scan the surface, then you maybe CT scan it or maybe use an electron microscope. Ta Da!
And then you find out you need to do it again because the part is warped, broken or has enough porosity in it for you to have just spent a few days creating the world's most expensive high tech titanium sieve. “I don't think we can put it in an aircraft Bob, but maybe we can use it for desalination?” Maybe you do this 4-5 times per new design or geometry.
But, after that its like totally amazing and works every time! Or like, maybe, depending on some things, not exactly every time. But, at least you totally know what went wrong and exactly at what production step things went wrong, right? You can just verify all of the settings and then know exactly what parameter to adjust, right? I mean there are tables for this, and software and closed loop control and quality assurance. We totally have all of that information set up and there’s like established processes and workflows that work every single time? So we just turn one knob back a bit and then it works perfectly? Uum… well… perhaps not every time.
Just between you and me, be honest with yourself for a moment. If you were going to Euromold and someone told you, “we have two aircraft: a bog standard 747 and one where all of the parts are 3D printed, which do you want to you fly?” Imagine you were taking your family, your kids or your friends? Which would you pick? The one made by the artisans, the artists. The skilled and experienced eyeballing and through experience producing every part individually? The romantic in me wants to say, that one. The 3D printed aircraft would surely be the cooler one. But, for now...I think I'll stick with the bog standard 747.
“We have two aircraft: a bog standard 747 and one where all of the parts are 3D printed, which do you want to you fly?”
We can't do production at scale in orthopaedics, aerospace and other industries with artisans and artists. We can't continue on our Ferran Adria, Marco Pierre White arsenal idyll. This was fine for the previous stage of the industry. Skill, years of practice, inspiration, experience and knowledge all leading up to playing with metal. Toying with it, encouraging it, cajoling it to form shapes. A collection of artisans toiling and learning in established partnerships, apprentices to the dark hidden arts of alchemy. If we want however to turn really lead into gold we will have to go from lab to fab.
In order to succeed we're going to have to adopt and create standards, processes, workflows, software, quality control and machines that will fully automate AM for metals. No humans involved.
- Depowdering will have to be fully automated.
- Production lines of machines will have to be set up to do all the post processing automatically.
- No more pushing around of parts on carts.
- Part tracking and identification will have to be automated.
- Scanning for morphology and surfaces will have to take place at every step.
- Support removal will have to be automated.
- Powerful software will have to anticipate, simulate and control these entire processes.
- Software will have to be able to validate new materials and parts while changing process parameters along the chain so parts will work the first time they are made.
- Six Sigma and other quality control processes will have to be adopted and integrated.
- Our error rates will have to be oceans and oceans lower than the single digit percentages we are used to.
- Six Sigma is 3.4 failed parts per million produced parts. We are typically 3000 times less efficient than this.
- Machines will need to be faster, more accurate and have higher throughput.
- Machines will at least need to be able to switch out previous builds during the evenings and nights.
- Machines could also perhaps then independently start new builds during the night.
- Material costs will have to be significantly lowered.
- We need to develop a PostScript for AM.
- Predictive analytics of part quality, density, morphology and surface will need to be made.
- Machine reliability will have to be improved significantly.
- TCO on operating AM metal machines will have to be reduced from $100,000 a year.
- Software will have to automatically design all supports, redesigns, adding of material as well as do optimal nesting.
- Labor costs per part will have to be reduced from over 30%.
- Porosity, cracking and warping of parts needs to be controlled for and discovered as early on as is possible in the process.
- Materials and material characteristics will have to be codified.
- Design for AM will have to be easier, incorporating into it material, load, usage and final outcome.
In short we need to automate, control, optimize and improve to the point whereat we can reliably constantly manufacture fully dense smooth parts to specific dimensions repeatably round the clock at scale.
There are encouraging developments in this field such as Brent Stucker's 3DSIM software, Additive Industries goal to add more automation to metal AM, EOSTATE, Streamics, Geomagic Control & Verify, the m400, the 1000R & the Q10 (especially LayerQam). But, we will need to do much more heavy lifting in order to reach the next phase. Opportunities abound.
If you are now the Ferran of this industry I would advise you to do what you can to be the McDonalds of metals services, software or machines for AM. Process control, reliability, operational excellence, throughput and lowest cost to part are key. Fail and you may get to high five some Formula 1 engineers a few times a year but you will be missing out on the greatest wave of opportunity that this industry has ever seen. If you manage this you may soar. There are around 20,000 private jets in the world. Maybe one day many parts of these jets will be made using AM. Maybe you get to call one of them your own.
We live in an age where we have telescope lenses precisely ground in order to see 13 billion light years into our collective past. A world where fMRI scans may soon be able to extract actual images of things we imagine from our brains. Robots can play the violin and computers can beat us in chess. We can build things made out of building blocks of single atoms. We may in a few years have more cell phones than there are people on the planet. If we want to play a part in such an amazing world we need to up our game. We need to go from lab to fab.
P.S., I'd go with the Bombardier Global. For the interior you may find that a Lufthansa Technik office may be conveniently located near you.