December 2016. Switzerland’s Oerlikon Corporation AG acquired citim GmbH – leading producer of metal 3D printing parts – giving this way the first clues to the group’s Additive Manufacturing ambitions. That period saw a combination of acquisitions and new facility investments enabling the company to establish itself as a developer of both AM materials and parts, offering its customers the complete process chain, from new alloy development to component post-processing and testing. This is what I knew about Oerlikon when I met the company’s representatives for the first time, during their official launch onto the AM scene at Formnext 2017.
Fast forward to 2022. The company’s activities in the AM industry are shining over other sectors of activity where it has a deep expertise in, demonstrating how these various businesses can complete each other in a certain way, hence the company’s new positioning as ONE Oerlikon. To better understand its current positioning within the industry, explore what the future holds for the group and discuss this multifaceted approach in this business of innovation, I sat down with the right advocate: Markus Tacke, CEO of Oerlikon Surface Solutions.
With +/- more than 11 000 employees in thirty-eight countries, Oerlikon is growing at a rapidly increasing rate. Outside of the AM industry, the company is mostly known for its surface coating division and for the construction of systems and plants for the production of manmade fibers. However, the new rebranding sheds more light on its entire portfolio which is made up of 7 brands:
- Oerlikon Additive Manufacturing, its AM division that provides metal powders, prototyping and series production;
- Oerlikon Metco which provides materials and surface solutions;
- Oerlikon Balzers known for its surface technologies;
- Oerlikon Barmag for the development of manmade fiber spinning systems and texturing machines;
- Oerlikon Neugmag for BCF carpet yarn and synthetic staple fibers plants;
- Oerlikon Nonwoven acknowledged for a comprehensive range of solutions for all important nonwoven production processes; and
- Oerlikon HRSflow which develops hot runner systems for the polymer processing industry.
When asked which brand is currently gaining momentum the most, Tacke provides a nuanced response that reflects the difference between “trending on the market” and the brand that has “the highest growth”.
“It turns out that Oerlikon has a strong positioning in each of the market it operates on. We do note that materials and surface solutions draw a lot of interest while our AM division has the highest growth. As far as AM is concerned, we focus on metal AM processes and applications”, Tacke comments. And the CEO’s explanations on their AM business makes me understand how AM is more than just a manufacturing strategy; it’s an enterprise strategy.
The enterprise strategy at the heart of Oerlikon’s path to AM
For a group like Oerlikon that operates in multiple sectors, implementing AM requires a broad perspective and strategy over the enterprise, a clear understanding of the benefits that might come, as well as the ways different businesses of the enterprise will need to adapt (or might intertwine). AM is often said to be a tool among many others in the production environment, but when you look at the executive perspective, you come to realize that it’s a supply chain in a box that calls for out-of-the box thinking in terms of how the company might adapt to deliver its promise.
In the case of Oerlikon for instance, AM has not been integrated entirely from scratch into the group’s business. The company’s solid expertise in materials has been the driving force behind its positioning in the AM industry.
“We approached AM from our materials competences. We have a key experience in developing powders for applications and we combine that experience with our process capabilities and align them with the requirements of the AM market”, the CEO explains.
This is just one of the many understandings we get from the executive perspective. Another one consists in combining its deep expertise in AM with the one it has in other fields of activity.
“If you look at AM projects, most of them are about optimizing the processes. At Oerlikon, we are fortunate enough to have all the resources in-house to manufacture the most-demanding of components. Our design expertise lies in our ability to develop some of the most complex materials, our AM expertise today encompasses everything we need to know to operate a 3D printer to visual inspection, and improve efficiency and quality. Added to that our deep knowledge in surface coating expertise, we are pushing the boundaries of AM beyond the manufacturing process itself”, he adds.
Furthermore, to position oneself sustainably on this market, it’s crucial to expand one’s technology capabilities. To do so, companies can either acquire other businesses or develop products.
Oerlikon did both. If its early stages have been marked by acquisitions, the company also “develops some expertise”. “Going forward, we will continue to do both. From a technology standpoint, you can have a great technology, but if you don’t know how to leverage all its capabilities, you will never be on top of your league. That’s the reason why, we invest a lot in our R&D activities”, Tacke outlines.
As part of their R&D activities, the team focuses on the development of more suitable AM materials – a key area of interest is aluminum as it’s a key enabler to achieve lightweight aerospace parts with high efficiency – and optimization of their properties with the AM machines they utilize. Other areas of focus include the visual monitoring of the printing process (in-situ visual inspection and flow panel optimization) as well as the development of other processes to make viable applications.
A quick look at Oerlikon’s key milestones over the past five years shows how this strategy has been implemented:
In 2020 for instance, Oerlikon AM and Hirtenberger Engineered Surfaces joined forces to apply the Hirtisation Process to the prototyping business, which is expected to improve productivity by eliminating extra finishing steps. Last year, the company announced the development of a new high entropy alloy that could replace super duplex stainless steels in the additive production of structural components, such as centrifugal pump impellers. This year, the company shows its willingness to advance R&D activities within the AM industry by cofounding the TUM-Oerlikon Advanced Manufacturing Institute. Over the next five years, up to thirty dissertations focusing on technical research along the entire value chain will be supervised. These include the development of new, tailor-made materials, studies on the printing process and the reciprocal interactions between processes and materials, as well as the entire additive manufacturing procedure.
The ‘try everything, fail fast’ ethos
With all that is being said, one could easily think that because Oerlikon has the financial resources, thus the means to support its goal, the company is evolving in a “fairy tale” where everything works well. It doesn’t (always).
The reason for this is simple: most parts manufacturers start their AM journey with faulty expectations as to where the journey might lead, and narrow expectations about where the benefits might be realized. And I believe Oerlikon is no exception. The truth is, this standpoint does not always take into account the different avenues of transformation (e.g. design, production, operations, accounting and image) that AM might affect, nor all possible applications where significant savings can be achieved – yes, because at the end of the day, AM, especially metal AM and related processes remain expensive technologies.
While he didn’t expand on their challenges, Tacke did recognize that they have been through the highs and lows everybody goes through:
“The AM world has a start-up spirit. While we recognize the freedom of design that opens up new opportunities, I see a different momentum in this industry compared to classical engineering applications. The technology might be a new solution to a lot of manufacturing problems, but it does not advance at a fast pace as other tech fields – as the IT for instance -. There are several reasons for this, one of them being to find the ideal way to manage this environment. You can fail fast with AM, but if you’ve found your path, you can grow fast”.
At the end of the day, the success of the right AM strategy also comes down to the implementation and understanding of the right processes by the engineer. For Tacke, this part of the job heavily depends on education that should be provided to enable (future) engineers to understand AM capabilities. For the rest, and because AM remains a relatively “new technology”, it’s crucial to be able to adapt your business. Oerlikon certainly tried a lot, failed but most importantly, bounced back quickly. For any manufacturing business, whether you’re an Oerlikon or an SME, failing to adapt can be fatal.
This interview has first been published in the September/October edition of 3D ADEPT Mag. Remember, you can post free of charge job opportunities in the AM Industry on 3D ADEPT Media or look for a job via our job board. Make sure to follow us on our social networks and subscribe to our weekly newsletter : Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn & Instagram ! If you want to be featured in the next issue of our digital magazine or if you hear a story that needs to be heard, make sure to send it to email@example.com