How to establish a promising technology

Additive manufacturing (AM) has significant potential to make material production faster and more efficient. In this interview, Professor Gerd Witt outlines AM’s capabilities and the current use in the German industry.

Image: UDE/Frank Preuß

Bio

Gerd Witt is professor for production processes and machine tools at Gerhard-Mercator-University Duisburg. Since his nomination in 1998, he focused on applying technologies such as 3D printing to industrial processes. The founder of two university-spin offs, Additive Manufacturing & Research (AMR) as well as Additive Manufacturing Polymer Research (AMPR), Witt is a leading figure in the field. 

Question: Professor Witt, you started focussing on 3D printing some 20 years ago. Where do you expect additive manufacturing to be in five to ten years?

Answer: It will be regularly used in small- and mid-sized product series and across all manufacturing methods, including highly complex projects. It will also become a relevant production method for safety features. For their part, engineers will have embraced the technology and production will be faster and cheaper. 

Question: How receptive is today’s German industry to this technology?

Answer: The German manufacturing industry is gradually accepting additive manufacturing into its production halls and work streams. One of the reasons is that many companies are lacking personnel with adequate training in the field. Another is that one can’t just put a printer into a factory workshop and turn it on. Costing up to 750,000 euros apiece, a 3D printer is an expensive and complex piece of equipment that requires highly trained personnel to run it. 

Question: That sounds challenging indeed. How many companies are using the technology today?

Answer: According to a survey published by Ernst and Young in early 2017, some 37% of companies use it, but with the support of sub-providers. Many of the large corporations, be that in mechanical engineering or in the automotive industry, are underequipped in this regard. My estimation is that some 12-15% have additive manufacturing labs inhouse, yet this is growing rapidly.  

Question: What can be done to support the uptake of 3D printing? 

Answer: Education and industry standards. We need well-founded education, both at university-level, and for experienced engineers who want to stay up-to-date. But there is more: additive manufacturing is not economically efficient yet; partly because post-processing work still causes up to a third of the final product’s cost. This needs to be reduced. But, of course, the more the technology is applied, the more accessible and cost efficient it will become. And we need to ensure its professionalism as well.

Question: Can you explain what you mean by professionalism? 

Answer: Take quality control, for example. There are few standards for the use of additive manufacturing. German railway Deutsche Bahn and TÜV Süd, a technical inspection authority, have initiated first steps to establish a set process for the incorporation of 3D printed parts into a product; Airbus is also using additive manufacturing but by and large, standards and regulations around the production process are still undefined. This needs to improve quickly. 

Question: Even though Germans have a reputation for being timely and orderly – how come? 

Answer: Additive manufacturing in Germany has largely been introduced by small entrepreneurial companies who can see the advantages of additive manufacturing and want to work in an agile way, so sometimes standards and regulation are not their highest priority.  

Question: What can the industry and governing bodies do to ensure quality and safety?

Answer: It is perfectly reasonable for corporations to gradually incorporate a new technology such as additive manufacturing into their processes. In conjunction with the start-up culture I just described this ensures the technology is developed to its full extent. Carl Fruth’s Fit AG is a great example.  And now, as the technology develops and the industries that can use it grow, we are seeing more structural parts being made; hence, we need to ensure that standards are in place going forward, so the process can truly reach its potential.

3D printed item made from metal powder using ADDvance technology from Linde.  Remaining powder being removed from piece.
An employee removes surplus powder after a 3D printing job was completed using Linde’s ADDvance technology.