How was the First Additive Manufacturing Conference in the Benelux?

For this first experience, HP, BASF, Siemens and Materialise, the “Big Four” gathered around a hundred guests in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

In major European cities, AM conferences are organized to raise awareness on the potential of the technology and to discuss the current challenges companies still have to overcome. In the Benelux, we didn't have a dedicated event of this kind yet. Until September 18th, when HP, BASF, Siemens and Materialise joined forces to make it happen. For this first experience, the “Big Four” gathered around a hundred guests in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

While no particular reason explained the choice for the Netherlands’ fourth-largest city, it should be noted that the inspirational environment of the NBC Congress Centrum paved the way to innovations we discovered.

Four main points shaped this gathering:

  • Around snacks and drinks, guests networked with peers in the exhibition hall, while discovering HP’s recently released Jet Fusion 5200 series 3D Printing System, BASF’s material developments, Siemens’ end-to-end integrated system for industrializing AM as well as Materialise’s inspiring power of co-creation.
  • If the plenary session was an interesting “recall” of each company’s services, it demonstrated something much more important: their complementarity and willingness to continue pushing the boundaries of industry 4.0 together.
  • Every group of guests, (dispatched according to their colour badge), attended break-out-sessions designed to deepen their understanding of what each company brought to the industrial and consumers markets.
  • A panel and a cocktail allowed attendants to sympathize and better know each other at the end of the day.

Despite the strong complementarity between the partners of this conference, one-to-one conversations with representatives of each company revealed insightful and forward-looking strategies.

HP & Digital Production on-Demand

Acknowledged as one of the leaders in the 2D Printer market, HP entered the 3D Printing market in 2014, at the end of its fiscal year. This timing was perfect for those who were interested in specializing in metal additive manufacturing market as patents for several technologies including binder jetting began to expire, allowing new companies into the market. More importantly, it was a real challenge to leverage the company’s 2D Printing knowledge & expertise to help industries shift towards smart manufacturing.

Interestingly, at the head of HP 3D Printing Business, we do not always find veterans of the AM industry, like in most AM companies. Do not get me wrong, veterans bring an array of advantages to a business but an outsider like Philipp Jung brings a fresh look that is also necessary to help HP envisions a long-term future in the industry.

The Chief Strategy Officer has been working for 6 years in the company. Rapidly involved in the customer success journey, P. Jung realized that transforming a company’s manufacturing production required to take into account two main factors:

  • “It’s not just about the printer.” This is an indisputable fact for Jung. Indeed, Hewlett Packard’s ability to create value is driven by business cases that have something in common: leveraging the capabilities of several tools of a bigger system – which includes: design, software and materials.

 “The technology might be advancing at a fast pace, but it still takes time to implement real and complete digital production into companies’ facilities”, said Jung. 

People’s mindset is not just ready yet. Furthermore, those who are ready do not have the required skills. Digitalisation does not aim at removing jobs but at creating new ones while improving old tasks.

In this vein, to help students and professionals to better embrace additive manufacturing, the Multi-Jet Fusion specialist decided to launch its education program in collaboration with some universities. We might expect further information on this program next semester.

  • Jung’s second factor to take into account consists of “advancing the value proposition of the technology by improving productivity”. Although 3D Printing is several decades old, it came to disrupt facilities that already integrated a range of manufacturing processes.

For Jung therefore, “it is crucial to make additive manufacturing more attractive”. The best way to do so is to highlight and lay emphasis on the technology’s strengths that other manufacturing productions do not have.

Achieving dimensional accuracy with parts and increasing productivity even further are key benefits that can tip the balance in favour of additive manufacturing. 

What enables this ecosystem to last over time

While there are certainly great success stories in the industry, reality also depicts a great number of companies that filed for bankruptcy. According to Jung, those who are still in the game today are those who have been able to keep “an entrepreneurial mindset”. Only an entrepreneurial mindset provides an inherent need to approach challenges & mistakes, to improve skills, to try and try again. 

In five years in the industry, HP has surrounded itself with collaborators in-house and partners like materialise or BASF that have this mindset. Its portfolio today illustrates this mindset in its evolution:

  • The HP JET Fusion 500/300 Series, for instance, enables functional prototyping. It was designed with colour in mind. “If you scratch a part produced with this system, the color will still be there”, explained the expert.
  • The HP Jet Fusion 4200 series is ideal for low-volume production whereas the latest released system, the 5200 series, enables to achieve volume production. Moreover, it includes what’s required to transform manufacturing. This system comes with a solution that integrates software capabilities.

Launched last year, the HP Metal Jet Fusion, on the other hand, enables mass production. It is currently being harnessed as part of the production service of a few manufacturers of the industry (like GKN).

With these assets in its portfolio, HP is more than ready to change the manufacturing world.

BASF & its innovative materials

Baden Aniline and Soda Factory aka BASF is an empire in the chemical industry. With subsidiaries and joint ventures in over 80 countries, the company has more than 390 production sites around the world. For several years, the chemical giant has been involved in high-profile partnerships in AM with partners like HP and Essentium but September 1, 2017, was a decisive year for the company as it announced the effective creation of its business dedicated to additive manufacturing.

BASF 3D Printing Solutions GmbH entered the additive manufacturing market when there was a high demand for more functional plastics and powders. 

However, “generating complex geometries in an increasing variety of materials, including polymers, ceramics and metals, requires a certain level of experience and time to translate molecular interactions into practical materials and devices” explained Rüdiger Theobald, Senior Manager Sales & Marketing 3D Power Solutions.

Moreover, having a functional material is not enough, producers need to ensure their compliance with specific standards for safety, quality or performance. That’s the reason why BASF 3D Printing Solutions GmbH decided to position itself as a full solution provider for industrial 3D Printing.

The company is currently working on a “third-party certified materials program”. It also provides integrated engineering and simulation services to support companies in their AM workflow. Indeed, the 3D Printing business unit has understood the importance of every step in an additive manufacturing process. Therefore, its engineers’ role consists of but is not limited to, supporting customers in the optimization of part designs, part simulation and process properties. They can also test part behaviour under load, and consult on the best-matching 3D printing process. 

“One year in AM is 10 years in traditional chemistry” Rüdiger Theobald.

BASF portfolio includes a comprehensive range of engineering thermoplastics, polyurethanes, acrylate systems, functional additives, stabilizers & pigments. These products are a basis for ready-for-use formulations for 3D printing.

It takes so much time to develop a 3D printing material that producers need to be able to seize market opportunities when they saw one. Theobald related one of these opportunities during the development of the famous TPU.

Credit: Materialise - TPU

Four years ago, BASF strengthened its collaboration with HP for production-ready AM materials development. HP asked BASF to develop an “easy to print TPU material”. For BASF, that wasn’t their first experience with this material.

Indeed, first tests regarding the Ultrasint®TPU material were carried out 6 years ago. The material is known as a “granulate [ideal] for flexible applications that require rebound and shock absorption. [As part of this partnership with HP] the challenge was therefore to make a powder that is compatible with HP MJF Technology”, explained Theobald.

A wide range of materials was in the pipeline but the new thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), Ultrasint®expands the breadth of applications on the new Jet Fusion 5200 Series systems. 

Today, there is a large number of AM systems available on the market. Each of these systems should be able to achieve high reproducibility and mass production of materials. BASF’s goal is to enable this mass production. More importantly, we want to be the first to achieve this goal. You have to be the first if you want to innovate.”, concludes Theobald.

 

Materialise & the Co-creation journey

Bart Van der Schueren is the veteran of this group. With a 29-year experience in this industry, the CTO has built this company alongside Wilfried Vancraen. Talking to Van der Schueren was like talking to a wise man that shared his industry experience so that anyone can make the most of it.

It was tough and it still is. You have to comply with new rules and new languages. Furthermore, the manufacturing world is something and the prototyping world is another one”, explained the expert.

In three decades, Materialise has managed to create and to deliver a range of software solutions and 3D Printing services that constitute the backbone of the 3D Printing industry. According to Van der Schueren, each decade came with its array of challenges:

  • During the first decade, the goal was to “make it work”. Being able to successfully connect their software solutions with AM systems. The market volatility was not reassuring and there were only two companies that provided services at that time.
  • During the second decade, the focus was on finding the range of applications that could leverage additive manufacturing. The company achieved significant milestones by discovering the technology potential in eyewear, sport, consumer goods, prototyping, fashion, industry, design and healthcare industries. More importantly, the more they discovered applications, the more they were able to customize and develop new tools of their software platform. New tools have been developed for instance for the dental and the design fields. Today, “our software connects design creativity with what is printable”, said the CTO. Furthermore, another important issue the industry faced, was dysconnectivity. “To achieve rapid and volume production, all tools need to be connected and work as if they are part of a unique system. It was therefore vital to connect our software tools with companies’ product portfolio to enable viable AM production.” To illustrate this point, Materialise’ spokesperson recalled how their technology has been integrated into Siemens’ NX™ software, streamlining the design to the manufacturing process for the growing range of products produced using AM.
  • This third decade came with one goal: “make the industry scalable”. Across the industries that leverage additive manufacturing, professionals keep facing cost and predictability issues. To address these issues, the Belgian company decided to apply a co-creation approach. Materialise’ s co-creation journey is an ideal way to identify how a project can benefit from 3D Printing. Moreover, an interactive session between Materialise’s experts and experts from another industry is a tangible way to appreciate the company’s extensive knowledge regarding additive manufacturing. The collaborations with Hoet & Safilo in the eyewear industry are a few examples that illustrate this point.
Credit: Materialise

The place of Benelux in the global AM industry

As Materialise is a Belgium-based company, and as this was the first AM conference organized by the four partners in the Benelux region, it would have been weird to not mention the place of the Benelux region in the AM industry.

Speaking of this positioning, reality shows that when it comes to the integration of AM, the Benelux region is still a nascent market compared to neighbouring countries like Germany or France.

From a technology perspective, there is a clear additive manufacturing footprint in Belgium and the Netherlands through the presence of some leading companies. From an application perspective, I remain sceptical regarding the integration of AM in Belgium. The Dutch industry is much more receptive to industrial change. Belgian companies, on the other hand, should realize that it is time to invest in technology. At present, we do not see yet the transformative power of AM in Luxembourg”, said Van der Schueren.

Materialise has proven it won’t stop addressing the challenges of AM. The next issue in its agenda is the technology value in sustainability. AM has an important role to play in this issue and Materialise aims to be part of this change.

Siemens is a lot of things. It might take more than one article to draw a decent description of the German multinational group. However, it is interesting to keep in mind that the technology company is mainly active in industry, energy and healthcare. 

The company was first an AM user before being a key player in this niche market. As a software company, the technology expert provides its solutions under the brand Siemens Digital Industries Software, formerly known as Siemens PLM Software.    

Dr Tom van ‘t Erve, Global AM Director at Siemens Digital Industries Software makes it clear from his first statement: “Additive Manufacturing is not the centre of our universe. It is a tool in a bigger toolbox.” Indeed, Siemens lays emphasis on industrialization as part of its services.  Through its integrated end-to-end system for industrializing additive manufacturing, Siemens supports companies at every single step of the value chain, starting from the design to the production of the end-product.

Once you have designed a part, you need to prepare it for production and this requires communication with the machine to ensure traceability, machine monitoring but above all, managing and executing a professional process”, explained van ‘t Erve.  

Such type of preparation may require the use of various tools. Furthermore, operators often compare AM with conventional manufacturing processes. The expert demonstrates that this comparison cannot not only be seen at the level of the machine but also the software level. Indeed, even though there might be AM-specific challenges at the software level, “during the use of AM software specific tools, implementing a change does not require to change the production process, which is often the case with traditional software.

More importantly, envisioning all challenges that may occur during a given production process, be it AM or CNC process, may help professionals to save a huge amount of time during the production.

The value of digital twin technology

Tom van ‘t Erve discussed a concept that consists of tying digital designs to their physical counterparts. The concept is not new but is gaining momentum as it has proven its viability by collecting and analyzing real product data during operations.  Siemens’ vision of digital twin technology, therefore, consists of a virtual replica of a physical system, process or product. The technology expert, therefore, explores the opportunities of this technology at three levels: Digital Twin of Product – Digital Twin of Production and Digital Twin of Performance.

Credit: Siemens -Digital twin Discrete industry Manufacturers

According to van ‘t Erve, this technology “delivers a real-time look at how a physical asset is performing. Using this technology would enable an operator to identify where improvements can be made to reach more favourable outcomes.” 

Credit: Siemens

In other terms, the digital twin of a product will consist in the creation of digital models that can accurately predict the behaviour of these products. “Improvements can occur at the level of weight, performance or even stress”, said Siemens spokesperson.

The digital twin technology of production would enable any operator to virtually produce the part before he even buys the desired equipment.

The digital twin of performance takes into account the performances of both production and product. The operator can analyze and predict improvements based on data from the product and the production facilities.

Depending on the need of the user, those three technologies can be used singly or jointly.  In addition to ensuring predictability and repeatability, Tom van ‘t Erve said Siemens Digital Twin Technology enables to “automatically remove the part, ensure part safety and is environmental-friendly.”

Siemens is clearly at the forefront of industry 4.0. The company demonstrates how intelligent industrial communication networks are used to digitalize the industry’s entire value-added processes. And this is not a simple matter. Companies should better be ready to embrace this innovation.

 

In the end, there is no doubt participants learned a lot among HP, BASF, Materialise and Siemens’ experts. They certainly left the conference with lots of answers and ideas. Only one question remained unanswered: are we going to have a second AM conference organized by our “Big Four”? – If that’s the case, where will it take place?

 

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Corporate communication and content marketing specialist at 3D Adept, Kety has a great interest in technological innovations, precisely for the scope of 3D printing on different sectors of activity. In order to take advantage of it, a wide range of innovations still have to be discovered about the technologies that shape the world of tomorrow.