Founded in 1997, Arcam AB officially debuted in the additive manufacturing industry with the launch of its first machine in 2002. Since then, the Swedish manufacturer has gone through nine further system variations.
A recent conversation with Karl Lindblom, General Manager of Arcam EBM, highlights the unique advantages – and limitations - of this manufacturing technology & how the company applies the Lean Manufacturing principles to fit into GE Additive’s whole structure.
Electron Beam Melting Technology takes to the air
Put simply, Electron Beam Melting is a metal additive manufacturing technology that uses an electron beam to melt layers of metal powder. Technically speaking, a computer-controlled electron gun creates fully dense 3D parts directly from metal powder.
So far, Arcam EBM has been acknowledged for its ability to deliver this unique rapid manufacturing method. Throughout our visit at the company’s facility, we have been initiated to the basic principles of this technology.
As the manufacturing process is based on electrons, an interaction occurs between the electron beam and the powder thanks to the material’s conductivity. However, depending on the applications the operator is looking for, the limited range of materials EBM can process, can be seen as an advantage or a limitation. Current available materials include cobalt chrome, steel powders, nickel alloy 718, titanium alloys and pure copper, which seems to be the ideal candidate for automotive applications.
However, based on our tour at the Centre, we assume that the limited choice of materials can be explained by the extensive testing of materials required prior to effective use by the operators.
Furthermore, we saw high-quality metal printed parts showcased in front of the education center. Comparable to components manufactured with conventional manufacturing processes (e.g.: casting), the preheating process and high temperatures of the build environment allow them to have a high density as well as strong mechanical properties.
In addition, another unique advantage that can tilt the balance in favour of this technology is the minimal waste it offers. Indeed, most of the unused powder can be leveraged again for future applications - which is of paramount importance given the expensive cost of materials.
Powder-Bad Fusion Technology or Electron Beam Melting Technology???
We couldn’t help but ask the question to Lindblom: why PB-F and not EBM – and vice-versa? For the General Manager, “we need to look below the surface as there is not only one application that can be achieved with these technologies. Reality shows that the biggest users have acquired one PB-F system and one EBM sysem.” The statement is clear: “we need both types of technology”.
Moreover, a quick look at the use cases shows that both technologies share common applications in the medical, automotive, and aerospace industries. If the final rendering of the part produced will help the operator in its final decision, it should be noted that in the aerospace industry, EBM is particularly ideal for the manufacture of parts that require a substantial weight reduction. GE Aviation’s bold investment in 27 Arcam EBM systems is a tangible example of the specific fit of the technology for this industry.
The Lean Manufacturing Focus
To gain a competitive edge, a great number of companies have adopted “Lean Manufacturing” as a keystone for development in global market. Applying these principles requires the continuous search for solutions to increase production, reduce costs, improve quality, and increase profits.
To ensure a seat in the AM international arena, Arcam AB was no exception to the rule. However, in this specific case, the results of this method’s applications have been fostered by the continuous support of GE.
“My role is to ensure the proper integration of Arcam AB into this new structure. GE has a broad experience in industry and industrialization. We have learned from this profound knowledge and we have learned how to apply it to Arcam AB. In the end, we have to apply this Lean thinking principle in a way that fits us best”, said the General Manager.
From a technology point of view, Arcam AB has come a long way since it was created. EBM has proven its capabilities to meet production needs of industrials.
Given the current advancements of the market, it is clear that the company will have more challenges to overcome, especially regarding its systems automation, but it is also clear that more innovations are on the horizon. One thing is certain: under the parent company’s wing, GE, it will certainly be exciting.
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