The 4th Additive Manufacturing Forum was also the opportunity to catch up with well-established players in the industry. One that is currently gaining momentum is Solukon and for good reason, the Germany-based company currently addresses challenges encountered with metal Additive Manufacturing: powder removal.
The last time we saw the company was at Formnext, when it announced the launch of AM Powder Plus (AMP+) in collaboration with Assonic Dorstener Siebtechnik GmbH and ULT AG. Since then, the company released a new automated powder removal system, designed for oversized components.
During our conversation at Berlin, Andreas Hartmann, the CEO/CTO & Co-founder of Solukon, highlighted the importance of post-processing in the space industry. Indeed, over 30% of Solukon’s systems are currently used by the Space & Aviation industries including national space agencies. With customers in the US especially in California, but also in Europe and Israel, Solukon is up to something that is worth taking seriously.
Post-processing “leaps into the air”
The space industry is a fun place to be right now. Players of this industry are increasingly becoming major adopters of additive manufacturing. As a matter of fact, according to Research and Markets’ last report, the yearly value of additively manufactured parts in the space industry will reach $4.7 billion, driving nearly $1 billion in yearly sales of 3D-printing equipment, software and materials – hence the increasing interest of suppliers in space industry applications.
At the manufacturing level, with the advancements of AM, more and more companies opt for metal-based AM especially powder bed and wire technologies.
Powder bed technology in particular, is acknowledged for its better tolerances, and its ability to deliver better surface finish, and more complex geometries. However, the differences between produced parts make the manufacturing process challenging, especially, when it comes to reflecting on how to obtain a perfect end-part while remaining cost-efficient.
“Rocket components are quite complex to manufacture. A single crucial part can include numerous individual components into one, with multi-functional lightweight construction that needs to be achieved. If their complexity makes AM the ideal technology, it does not mean the manufacturing process is less challenging. Indeed, manufacturing in the rocket industry requires to master and to handle more data; it requires more process-controls, not to mention the requirements in terms of certification”, explains Hartmann.
In other terms, this means that engineers in the space industry have to cope with new requirements in terms of cleanliness of internal cavities for instance, or for internal flow channels.
“Process control, material characterisation, and post-processing are areas that need development for qualification of AM”, states the co-founder of Solukon, that specializes in what everybody calls “post-processing”. Interestingly, as far as post-processing is concerned, Hartmann explains that “some parts often integrate fine and complex internal channels and cavities that keep powder which cannot be removed easily, making therefore this stage of manufacturing a real bottleneck for operators. We are talking about several days for manual powder removal processes and just a few hours with an automated powder removal system.”
What makes Solukon’s automated powder removal outstanding?
First, it should be noted that for now, Solukon’s automated powder removal system can be leveraged by any operator that builds a part on a powder bed-based metal AM system.
Hartmann does confirm that “the batch number of the aerospace parts is perfectly matching with automated depowdering. Moreover, our process is smart enough for parts of highest complexity. The demand for high repeating accuracy of the cleaning results is achieved much easier and more reliable than with manual de-powdering.
With our current top of the line system SFM-AT800-S, not only it is possible to move the part into any spatial position but also to program or teach endless moving-paths conforming to the internal geometry. So, the part can follow the path of labyrinth shaped channels. This is a mandatory feature for depowdering complex parts like heat exchangers. Especially for manufactures of large and full integrated rocket engines, we adopted this unique function to our new SFM-AT-1000. Depowdering complex rocket engines up to 1-meter height gets now easy. Last but not least, due to our dry and contamination free process the removed powder stays unaffected and can be reused for another fabrication process.”
Beyond the technical aspects of the system, Solukon powder removal technology increasingly raises awareness on exposure to metal parts during the manufacturing stage and the risks for health. Having the perfect equipment is good, but leveraging that equipment in an environment that is not a risk for operators is much better. In this regard, the ignition free design and an additional safety controlled inert gas atmosphere prevent any explosion risks during the process – risks that might result from dust clouds of explosive metal powders like Titanium.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the company is currently working on new functions for extended automation and process monitoring hence the close cooperation with some customers from the space and aviation industries.
Powder removal process vs post-processing?
Notice is to be made that throughout our conversation, Solukon’s spokesperson did not use the word “post-processing” while talking about metal powder removal and this was done on purpose:
“People tend to link powder removal to postprocessing but in reality, it is not. In our opinion, depowdering is not post-processing. Taking a closer look, it actually belongs to the manufacturing stage and is a mandatory step to allow an unproblematic handling in the following work-flow. Post-processing starts when the part is completely free from powder. What we do, does not influence the part itself”, explains the CEO/CTO.
With a wink and a smile, he adds “rather than using the word “depowdering”, maybe we should say something like “pre-post-processing””.
To sum up, beyond the space industry, challenges in manufacturing are continuously driving innovation. In the additive manufacturing industry, the growing list of collaborations and the technology developments of Solukon are tangible examples that show the capabilities of the company. Obviously, there are still several challenges to address, but right now, the company is part of this small list of companies which are uniquely positioned to provide the Space industry with a valuable asset.
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