If integrated cleverly, additive technologies can offer important contributions – for example by additively refining or individualizing conventionally produced base bodies. Via this route, AM could move to larger batch sizes, thus finding its way to large-scale production. In order to do that, we need to angle our thinking more towards process chains and to identify useful application fields for AM technologies. It might be an additive intermediate step which, on the way to the final product, renders five other forming or machining steps superfluous, thus saving tool costs and process time. Another field with potential is electromobility. Here, AM could deliver solutions in lightweight construction and thermal management that would not be realizable with other technologies.
From a user’s point of view, which topics should AM system engineers advance?
Merklein: Of course, it is always about productivity, reliability, and capital commitment. Apart from that, there are other topics: so far, operators of AM systems need to be highly qualified in order to manage the complexity. Here, we wish for simpler, preferably standardized controls, an integrated software as well as a uniform data format uniting all necessary process data and parameters. This would mean some sort of “data container” that documents all information about a component from the pre-chain to post-processing and quality control. In addition, we need more reliable component qualities.
How do you imagine a typical AM process chain in 2030 – and who will be using it?
Merklein: In 2030, we will see highly integrated, automated, decentralized and fully digital process chains with a cooperation between additive and traditional technologies. AM systems will be automated, manual powder-handling or post-processing will be rare exceptions. Only very few companies will use all AM technologies – rather, production will happen close to the customer in a decentralized manner with various focal aspects. Digitalization will allow us to recognize deviations of real components by checking model and test data, and to readjust AM processes in a closed loop. Who will use all this? Through Industry 4.0, everyone will use AM in the future – starting with workmen, small and medium-sized enterprises up to globally active corporate groups; be it with their own systems or by buying services. We at Schaeffler will cover the whole process chain from construction up to delivery.
Recently, you were voted into the board of the Additive Manufacturing Association within VDMA. Are there any specific topics or goals you want to promote?
Merklein: I want to contribute towards the realization of the vision I just described. Integration into process chains, a higher degree of automation, and consistent digitalization are all preconditions for developing AM towards large-scale production. In this young technology field, all players must join forces and collaborate for standardization. We will manage that – and make work simpler for everyone.