3D printing enters the factory door

From prototypes, 3D printers are now producing parts in series. Is it a revolution for the Swiss machine industry?

After Lucerne, Neuchâtel and Zurich, Geneva now has its own FabLab. Originating at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the concept brought down the lake by Romain Chappet, an assistant at HEAD (School of Art and Design), opens a new space for creation for all. Everyone will have the opportunity to make objects with the cult tool of the digital generation: 3D printers.

Thanks to a demand on the crowdfunding platform, wemakeit.ch, Romain Chappet received Sfr2200 to buy various 3D printers sold as kits, such as the Ultimaker for Sfr.1300 and the RepRap, for Sfr.800. On Kickstarter, he also ordered a RigidBot, Sfr.650 francs. For the price of 3D printers has dropped precipitously – by a factor of ten, in two years!

And to avoid this savings being eaten by the cost of consumables - like the ink cartridges for computer printers - some manufacturers like the Irish company MCOR now propose paper as the raw material for the layers that these printers build up to create objects from a design drawn on computer.

The era of “Makers”


The rapid evolution of 3D printers has taken these machines from the offices of a few pioneer designers, like Lucien Hirschi, at Zedax in Fribourg (read the March 10, 2010 issue of BILAN), to a profusion of offices of engineers, architects, etc. for their models and prototypes. Suddenly, the market has exploded with an expected growth in sales of 76% by 2018.

At that time, sales of this young industry will reach US$3bn -- and probably more if the prophecy Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, makes in his book “Makers” actually happens. Anderson predicts an industrial revolution, after which we need only download a 3D design on a home printer to produce an object on demand. In such a context, factories will no longer be needed.

We are not there yet. On the contrary. After the designers, it is, in fact, factories that now benefit from 3D printing. Next to the traditional machining methods, electrofusion or injection, 3D printing is no longer limited to producing plastic objects but is transforming metals, including precious metals, and ceramics; 200 different materials can now be printed today. What does this mean for traditional production techniques? And for the manufacturers of these conventional technologies, such as the machine-tools sector in Switzerland?

At EPFL’s management and production processes laboratory, Eric Boillat has worked for 15 years in the development of 3D printing technology in metals. “We talk about additive manufacturing,” he says, “because these selective laser sintering technologies using metal powders (SLS-SLM) add material instead of removing chips as in conventional milling.” Eric Boillat also notes the maturity of these technologies thanks to the increase by a factor of ten of the power of lasers in ten years. “Various steels are used to ‘print’ the tools. Biocompatible materials have been adapted for medical devices and aluminum for the manufacture of aircraft parts.” The Neuron, the Dassault UCAV combat drone, recently flew with some 50 3D-printed parts.

In Switzerland, from Sonova, which makes the shells for internal hearing aids based on the print of the patient's ear scanned in 3D by his audiologist, to Max Horlacher, an Aargau SME that prints turbine parts of complex geometry in super-alloyed steel, a number of companies have begun to equip themselves and to manufacture using these technologies. In St. Gallen, the Institute for Rapid Product Development (IRPD), a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, is even specialized in the transfer of these technologies to manufacturers such as Tecan*.

But the most successful application of 3D printing metal powders technologies in our country is, without doubt, the one developed by EB-Futuretech in Baar and La Manufacture in Geneva. These two companies are working together to making jewelry or watchcases printed in 3D from steel, gold and silver dust. “This is the point where the end-customer for a jewel or a watch is involved in the design with our designer who prints it a plastic prototype. The client can evaluate the prototype before ordering it printed in gold,” says Juan Franco, the founder of EB-Futuretech.

We immediately see the kind of opportunities in marketing and distribution opened up by this logic of co-design and ultra-personalization. Faced with these developments, the Swiss machine industry is behind. Almost all manufacturers of 3D printers for plastics are Asian or American. Machines for selective laser sintering metals are produced by Swedish companies (Arcam), French (Phenix) and especially German like the leaders EOS and Concept Laser. There is no Swiss manufacturer, as Swissmen, the umbrella body of the Swiss machine industry, confirms.

To our knowledge, only the U.S. subsidiary of Georg Fischer Group has collaboration in selective laser sintering. But it does not expect the launch of 3D printers for metals. Are these manufacturers missing a super opportunity?

The risk of a strategic mistake


“It’s a little more complex than that,” says Jean-Daniel Schmid, director of La Manufacture. “First, the metals do not have the same properties, depending on their manufacturing process. Then, 3D printing remains imprecise. In our case, we would still need a finishing by hand.” These techniques are also limited in size: up to 50 centimeters square with most materials, although Voxeljet in Germany produces pieces of 4x2m from sand and resin.

But add to that all the difficulties of qualification in industries such as aerospace and med-tech, and the prudence of Swiss industrialists is understandable. Especially since, as Eric Boillat says, “these processes are expensive with 3D printers for metals costing from Sfr250,000 to Sfr700,000.” Finally, at the rate of several minutes per layer, the printing process takes ten times as long as conventional techniques of mass production. “Above 3000 pieces, these processes are no longer competitive,” says Ralf Schindel of Inspire.

Still, “these techniques have a great virtue: the engineer is no longer constrained by the tools at its disposal,” says Felix Reinert, the manager of 3D printing at Max Horlacher. “He can plan from the start a part of particularly complex geometry that, previously, would have had to be assembled from multiple parts. Instead of thinking of the constraints, he will think in terms of functions, hence the urgency to train our technicians in the field.”

This design freedom is also the great advantage that cited by Juan Franco and Jean-Daniel Schmid. “We can make parts that were considered unthinkable until recently,” says Schmid. In addition, as Felix Reinert says, “3D printers will drop in price while increasing in speed of production. They are already competitive with some injection processes. If they are not intended to replace existing machines, they will complement them.”

Under these conditions, not participating in the dynamics forming around 3D printing may look like a strategic mistake for industry within a few years.



*Tecan Group Ltd. is a Swiss manufacturer of laboratory instruments and solutions for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, university research departments and diagnostic laboratories.







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