PRINTING THE FUTURE

Moving beyond conventional thinking...

3D printing is an extremely innovative field with the potential to revolutionize production—especially when it comes to additive manufacturing with specialty metals. The experts of Heraeus Additive Manufacturing (H3D) have made a name for themselves here. Their unique expertise ranges from producing specialty metal powders and developing the right processes to printing components.

Printing Source: Herbert Naujoks, Stuttgart

These days, anyone can print plastic parts at home using a 3D printer. And for some time now, additive manufacturing is also being used to print metal components. This technology is really turning traditional metal processing on its head: In contrast to manufacturing processes that remove material like milling and turning, additive manufacturing, as the name implies, adds it. Metal powder is applied layer by layer, and a laser then fuses the component into the desired geometry. As a materials specialist, Heraeus has long been interested in this innovative technology, founding an internal startup in 2015 following several years of development. “Heraeus provided us with support and the freedom to build up our current expertise with an interdisciplinary team of material scientists and engineers,” recalls Tobias Caspari, Head of H3D, about the startup’s early days. “It was an excellent situation.” The team has made good use of this freedom. In only a few years, H3D has made a name for itself with internal and external partners.

Adding rather than subtracting

Building up instead of removing—it may sound trivial, but it’s a fascinating shift in perspective. “Imagine that you want to manufacture a hollow sphere. The only way to do that with traditional methods would be to join two hemispheres. But with additive manufacturing we can print it as a single piece. This allows for totally different geometries,” Tobias Caspari explains. Freedom of design is one of the major advantages of metal 3D printing. “A lot of what engineers learn about limitations in traditional manufacturing technologies can be tossed out the window when it comes to 3D printing,” adds Alexander Elsen, Head of Innovation at H3D. “We are now able to print what was once unthinkable.”

Print Source: Herbert Naujoks, Stuttgart

Innovative materials play a role here, including Scalmalloy—a particularly strong aluminum alloy—titanium and titanium alloys as well as precious metals, refractory metals, and copper, whose high reflectivity had previously ruled out processing with common laser technology. “Now we can even print amorphous metals, which due to their soft magnetic properties, elasticity, strength, and resistance to corrosion are used in aerospace technology, prosthetics, and electronics. Amorphous metals must be quenched by one million degrees Celsius in less than one second. They were therefore considered not really suitable for manufacturing, and for a long time were only used to make thin foils and bands. Now with our printing process, even highly complex geometries can be created,” Elsen remarks enthusiastically about the success of the team. Heraeus is currently the only company that can print this type of metal. Word has spread in the industry about what H3D can create: top-quality 3D metal printing with innovative, durable, and often very light materials.

Saving material

3D printing Source: Herbert Naujoks, Stuttgart

“In addition to supplying materials, design and optimized printing processes to our industrial partners, we also print for our clients,” explains Tobias Caspari, describing the business model. “We can manufacture prototypes overnight that would previously have required months of work using tools and molds. Since we can, for example, print 50 different components in the same material in one print job, we’re also really fast. Plus, in contrast to manufacturing processes that use machining, printing does not generate any material waste, which saves valuable resources.” This is an important factor, as the H3D experts are anticipating the greatest growth in (more expensive) specialty metals.

In the meantime, H3D is not just offering solutions for external customers. Heraeus is also benefitting from the area’s potential to add value to other businesses within the group. Because the technology is quite new, Heraeus is using its own printing technology center for research and development as well as pursuing new ideas. “This technology has no limits. The only limits are when you cannot get beyond conventional thinking about geometries and materials,” emphasizes Tobias Caspari. The possibilities offered by 3D printing could also trigger a major rethinking in the industry. Demand-driven production could replace global logistics chains, and goods could be printed as needed rather than stored in warehouses— that sounds like a future hot off the presses.