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New source of automated equipment for 3D printing

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New source of automated equipment for 3D printing
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Companies looking to invest in powder-bed equipment for metal additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, have a major new supplier to consider - one that brings with it the backing of two French industrial giants. 

On 1st April 2016, tyre manufacturer Michelin and the Fives industrial engineering group collaborated to start AddUp, which they jointly own. At the start of 2018, the company appointed Gosport-based Geo Kingsbury as sole agent to offer its consultancy service throughout the UK and Ireland, as well as to sell and service its automated machines and to provide the requisite consumables and back-up.

Richard Kingsbury, managing director of Geo Kingsbury advised, "There are a few key points that manufacturers should keep in mind if they are considering an AddUp AM solution. 

"The systems are based exclusively on powder-bed technology, with successive layers melted and fused by one or two laser beams under computer numerical control. 

"As they are intended for economical, around-the-clock production of large volumes of high quality components, rather than prototype quantities, the solutions are highly automated. Michelin, for example, uses what AddUp now calls FormUp 3D printing machines to produce annually one million tyre mould inserts for introducing sipes into the tread pattern of its tyres.

"Due to the big production quantities involved, the systems are aimed at original equipment manufacturers and their top-tier suppliers. The process has been honed to achieve the highest levels of repeatability for the production of parts that are top quality in terms of their high surface finish, metallurgical integrity and dimensional accuracy. Often, components are net shape, without any need for further processing."

He also pointed out that economy of powder usage is at the forefront, consistent with economical mass production. In some cases, unlike with other manufacturers' systems, AddUp machines can produce metal parts with minimal need for a support structure, or perhaps no supports at all. So 3D printing of complex parts, especially those with overhangs, consume less material. Build rates are consequently faster and post-processing is minimised.

These advantageous selling points are bolstered by the comprehensive Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) measures adopted by AddUp, aspects that are often lacking with other 3D printing systems on the market. The initiative was driven by the importance that both Michelin and Fives Group have traditionally placed on safety, together with early in-depth analysis of the medical risks associated with the use of fine metal powders, particularly nickel and cobalt.

Detailed steps have been taken in the construction of the company's AM machines to limit operators’ exposure to powder. Safety also forms a key element of the consultancy service provided. AddUp has even gone so far as to patent its FlexCare System, which innovatively comprises one or more transportable, plug-and-play working modules based on customised, 40 ft containers that are fully compliant with HSE requirements.

The AddUp process

Despite its recent formation, AddUp is offering production solutions that have been developed over many years. Fives Group entered the sector in 2011 with the design and manufacture of its first metal laser deposition machine. Michelin started working on AM as early as 2003, as it was keen to introduce innovative sipes into the tread patterns of tyres and it was not possible to produce the required mould inserts in any other way. The technology also had the effect of speeding time to market and delivering cost savings.

Currently, AddUp offers one size of machine, FormUp 350 with 350 x 350 x 350 mm build chamber, which is the perfect size for producing Michelin's sipe mould inserts. This model will be joined by a larger and a smaller machine later in 2018 to create a range of three FormUp machines. 

The existing model is powered by one or two 500 Watt ytterbium fibre lasers with a spot position accuracy of ± 35 microns. Other features are a choice of layer thickness between 20 and 100 microns, programmable oxygen supply, bidirectional recoating, and exceptionally sophisticated powder management including automatic reservoir filling during machine operation. Interactive surveillance of all key parameters by the open-architecture CNC system, which is consistent with the aims of Industry 4.0, enables component reproducibility to within ± 30 microns, even on dimensions as small as 0.2 mm.

Powder materials currently available are 1.4404 grade 316L stainless steel, 1.2709 grade 18Ni300 maraging steel, the nickel alloys Inconel 718 and 625, titanium alloy Ti-6Al-4V, and AlSi10Mg grade aluminium alloy. Powder sizes up to 15 microns are used and it is notable that the FormUp process is especially tolerant to a wide spread of grain morphology and sphericity, lowering the cost of the consumables.

Background

Based in Clermont-Ferrand, AddUp's HQ and European Technology Centre is the hub of the firm's worldwide activities. It is headed by CEO Vincent Ferreiro, who gained a PhD in materials science before working in R&D for the French government and then holding senior positions in petrochemical multinational Total and latterly Michelin. 

He was instrumental in developing the latter's partnerships and strategic alliances and was tasked with finding new sources of growth outside the tyre business. Unsurprisingly, one of the high-added-value technologies on which he focused was AM, as Michelin had such in-depth experience in its development and practical knowledge of using the technology in-house. In 2011, the decision was taken to market the production process. 

Having used a 3D printing bureau early on to make mould inserts and verifying the effectiveness of the resulting tyre sipes, Michelin bought 10 metal AM machines to continue the work in-house. While satisfactory in operation, the equipment struggled to attain the levels of repeatability and reproducibility that Michelin desired and all attempts at improving the results failed. 

So in 2012, when it came to commercialising its AM offering, Michelin deployed considerable engineering resource to produce a completely new design of fully automated machine. Using the technology in-house to produce sipe inserts of a complexity and accuracy not previously possible, Michelin was able to introduce two new types of tyre with outstanding performance characteristics. The Premier tread took the US by storm, with its regeneratable tread that offers maximum safety by enabling the same short braking distance in the wet as in the dry, even when the tyre is worn. The enhanced AM capability in Clermont-Ferrand also enabled the launch in Europe of the Crossclimate tyre, the first to be officially approved for use in both summer and winter conditions.

Buoyed by these results but lacking a track record in building production machinery, Michelin sought a partner to manufacture the FormUp machine range, starting with the existing 350 model. Fives Group was chosen owing to its expertise in machine tool building and automation, experience in target industries including the automotive, tooling and energy sectors, knowledge of lasers albeit in the areas of welding and cutting, reputation for good after-sales service and global presence to support the worldwide customer base that AddUp is seeking. Fives Group is also French-owned, although this was the least important factor.

Mr Ferreiro commented, "We are already delivering machines into aerospace supply chains in France and the US, serving Airbus and Boeing respectively. With the automated, mass production capability of our systems, the automotive, energy, medical and tooling sectors will also be early targets.

"Our raison d'être is to add more value to customers' AM production than our competitors can. We start this process by changing the mindset of prospective users in respect of any preconceptions they may have about production methods and then providing holistic counselling along the AM route.

"After a manufacturer has designed what will undoubtedly be a high value part, we accompany them on a journey through detailed feasibility and profitability studies, choice of materials for AM, product optimisation if necessary to modify shape, weight and/or function, design of customised production plant, process simulation and qualification, delivery of the AM equipment, support for quality control, post processing advice and training."

In other words, he explained, a turnkey package is provided from the customer's nascent idea through to proof of concept at large series production quantities. It encompasses everything except the original design of the product to be manufactured, but even there AddUp is able to introduce ideas if asked to do so.

The future

Currently employing over 80 expert staff from both Fives Group and Michelin, AddUp continues to grow and expand worldwide. Looking forward, in addition to the mid-2018 opening of its first customer technology centre in the USA to serve the North American market, AddUp will develop new technological modules that can be integrated into AM systems. Collaboration partners include Aubert & Duval, ESI Group, FUSIA, Michelin, Safran, VOLUM-E, Zodiac Aerospace, the French National Center for Scientific Research and various universities.

The company will also continue to develop its 3D printing technology under a program known as SOFIA (Solutions pour la Fabrication Industrielle Additive métallique) and has planned a six-year research programme to develop the entire metal AM value chain. There will be a particular focus on the aerospace industry to improve metal powders, machines, energy sources and processes, as well as on designing new, optimised components and developing the knowledge base in respect of health and safety risks in metal AM.

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