Siemens invests in additive manufacturing factory

Siemens has opened a brand new state-of-the-art 3D printing facility in Worcester, UK, expanding its Materials Solutions subsidiary as part of its push to industrialise 3D printing. The company invited several journalists, including myself, to look around at the end of last year, though I’ve only just got around to writing the report.

The factory floor – Material Solutions additive manufacturing facility in Worcester, UK

Siemens is heavily involved in additive manufacturing through its power and gas division, which makes turbines and other equipment for large scale power generation. The company is a major end user making parts for its own business and has also developed its own Siemens NX workflow software. This puts Siemens in a good position to understand what manufacturers really want from 3D printing and has led it into offering additive manufacturing services to other users. 

Siemens’ interest in this technology started with Dr Vladimir Navrotsky, Siemens’ Technology and Innovation Manager, who asked the company to buy a 3D printer back in 2009 to see how feasible it would be for making parts for gas turbines. In 2013 Siemens used the technology to repair a burner, proving that additive manufacturing was both quicker and cheaper. However, although such repairs proved the technology worked they brought their own challenge because of the need to match the new metal to the used part, where the metallurgy had been altered by the heat those parts had endured.

Dr Vladimir Navrotsky, technical and innovations manager for Siemens industrial.

Since then Siemens has redesigned several parts specifically to be 3D-printed, optimising the geometry and combining several parts into a single component so that those parts cannot now be cost-effectively manufactured conventionally. So at this point Siemens is fully committed to continuing with additive manufacturing.

Dr Markus Seibold, vice president of Siemens additive manufacturing, says that 3D printing gives the company a lot of flexibility, explaining: “At some point we have to manufacture tooling so we have to commit to a design. But we can test new designs by additive even if we do the final part by conventional casting. This shortens the time from 12-18 months down to 3-6 months. And this gives our designers a certain confidence in the design performance of the part.”

He adds: “We can drive repair costs down and we can drive part costs down because we are taking 13 parts down to just a single part.” Ultimately Siemens is hoping to have 200-300 different parts designed to be 3D printed by 2025. However, Seibold accepts that Siemens is still learning about the technology, acknowledging that although the 3D-printed turbine blades can be run as fast as conventional blades, they don’t last as long.

Dr Markus Seibold, vice president additive manufacturing for Siemens.

Materials Solutions

Materials Solutions is a pioneer in the use of Selective Laser Melting (SLM) technology for the manufacture of high-performance metal parts, with a focus on high-temperature super alloys. It was set up back in 2006 by Carl Brancher to solve complex engineering issues with 3D printing. At that time the company operated three EOS M270 printers and rented space at Birmingham University. As the company expanded it moved to Worcester in 2010. Siemens began working with the company in 2014, taking a 14 percent minority stake in it in 2015 and then going on to acquire an 85 percent majority stake in 2016. Brancher continues to hold the remaining 15 percent.

Siemens has now built a new, much larger 4,500 sqm facility in Worcester, which neatly reflects the transformation of 3D printing from rapid prototyping to additive manufacturing. Seibold explains that whereas the company previously built one-off prototypes the new building also houses the post processing that’s necessary for manufacturing serial parts. Materials Solutions is also investing in inspection processes.

Phil Hatherley, general manager at Material Solutions.

Siemens has set aside €30 million for this factory, which has 32 bays fitted with the necessary conduits and powder management to hold two printers each. In practice there is a choice between locating two small printers or one larger one in each bay. Siemens uses a mixture of different machines with 19 installed so far although Phil Hatherley, general manager of Materials Solutions, anticipates that the factory will ultimately operate 50 machines, saying that the exact composition will depend on customer demand. Siemens works with a number of printer suppliers, including EOS and Renishaw. Seibold notes: “Printer suppliers ask us to beta test their machines because we do push them to their limits and we can give good feedback.”

Materials Solutions has deliberately chosen to concentrate on metal printing with Navrotsky remarking: “This is the most challenging right now.“ Seibold adds: “The value of this place is tremendously deep knowledge in metal powder and production.”

The factory uses many of Siemens’ latest digital factory and AM technologies, including an end-to-end PLM chain, Siemens’ computer-aided design software NX, and MindSphere, the Siemens cloud-based, open IoT operating system that connects products, factories, systems, and machines with data analytics. However, for security the machines themselves are not connected to the outside world. 

The post processing includes inspection of parts and removal of supports. This is surprisingly old-fashioned in such a high-tech environment, relying on a man with a hammer to knock the supports away. Hatherley says the company will invest in a CNC router when the volume of work goes up.

Digital Production

Hatherley says that his team has the expertise to tailor alloys to individual customer needs, as well as to design the parts themselves and help customers gain any necessary certifications. They can also create virtual simulations of parts and analyse how those parts will perform in their final environment. 

Clearly the new factory will support Siemens’s own business in producing parts for its Power and Gas division. But the real aim is to offer a contract manufacturing service to other industrial users, including those in the automotive and aerospace sectors. To illustrate this, Material Solutions has been working to restore a pair of 100 year old Ruston cars, nicknamed Gin and Tonic. The ongoing restoration has so far included scanning and 3D-printing the metal steering box. 

The 100 year old Ruston car that Material Solutions is helping to restore.

For now this new facility is mostly an empty factory building with a mixture of machines including older models and some more recent, as well as a brand new EOS M300-4. But the sheer scale of this investment combined with Siemens commitment and the expertise already demonstrated at Materials Solutions is such that I have no doubt that this factory marks a major milestone in the industrialisation of 3D printing technology. This is a world away from a conventional factory with its specialised tooling and lines dedicated to producing specific products. Instead, this sort of flexibility, to produce many different types of products in the same factory, is the direction that manufacturing is moving in. And if there’s any lesson to be learned here from the graphics printing industry, it’s that digital production starts with high value short run work and gradually expands, both as the technology improves to become more cost effective at longer runs, and as customers adapt to take advantage of the flexibility of shorter production runs.

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