Rust Belt to Tech Belt: GE Additive and Additive Engineering Solutions Share Insights into Regional Large-Scale 3D Printing

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Yesterday in Akron, Ohio, Additive Engineering Solutions (AES) had a full house of interested industry and local attendees for its open house, and staff writer Clare Scott and I were among the crowd. The young company showcased its large-scale manufacturing offerings, highlighting a BAAM 3D printer from Cincinnati Inc. and a large Quintax five-axis machining center.

Early on in the event, the BAAM was hard at work, 3D printing a bright green piece that would later be pulled off the print bed to serve as a bar for the latter portion of the day’s festivities, showcasing the large-scale speed with which BAAM 3D printing works.

Below is a (very) quick look at the BAAM in action creating the table:

During the welcoming ceremony, founders Austin Schmidt (President) and Andrew Bader (Business Development) shared details about the company’s history, from their first meeting in 2015 to the company going operational in January 2017, delivery of the BAAM system in February, and of the Quintax machine less than two weeks ago, before introducing guest speakers Joe Lettieri of Goodyear, Dr. Kirk Rogers of GE Additive, and Akron Mayor Daniel Horrigan.

“There were two things I wanted as a child: a Star Wars lightsaber, and a Star Trek Replicator,” Lettieri remarked. “As I grew up, I realized that if I had a Replicator, I could make my own lightsaber, so I started to focus on that. About the same time that my dream of a sci-fi lightsaber was fading, as a 13-year-old boy, the Replicator was starting to become a reality.”

He continued of the advances made in 3D printing over the last several decades, “With new technology advances like BAAM, the domain of problems that can be solved with full-sized prototyping is growing. … BAAM in our backyard is a huge competitive advantage for Akron.”

Stepping up next to the mic, GE’s Rogers noted an approach to thinking about the levels of education and usage in additive manufacturing:

  • Level 0 — Creation of tools, fixtures, prototypes
  • Level 1 — “Can I print it?” Those who had been casting parts begin to wonder about whether those parts are 3D printable
  • Level 2 — Thinking about design and redesigning for 3D printing
  • Level 3 — Beyond design: functionally integrating additive technologies
  • Level 4 — The “crazy MIT Media Lab stuff that’s not industrial or relevant today” that shows what the technologies can do, including 4D printing

The table 3D printed during the event is a small testament to the quick turnaround AES offers with BAAM

Rogers noted that GE works with smaller companies like AES often, as smaller companies often help bigger companies; smaller companies, he said, are changing the industrial landscape faster than the big guys like GE can. As an example, he pointed to a larger company GE was working with that, in six months working on a project, produced nothing; after talking with AES and starting a project, it was completed in one month.

For his part, Mayor Horrigan noted that young innovators and young companies push the area farther: “My job,” he said, “is to support endeavors like this, to bring this place back, to grow manufacturing.”

Akron, as with surrounding areas of Northeast Ohio and Southwest Pennsylvania, has a Rust Belt history with deep roots in manufacturing. Additive manufacturing and other advanced technologies are revitalizing manufacturing, and providing much-needed resuscitation to these areas as the new Tech Belt. Also indicative of this revitalization was a heavy presence from Youngstown, Ohio, with representatives from the Youngstown Business Incubator and Youngstown State University, both of which are heavily involved in additive manufacturing.

MakerGear M2 at AES

As the recently 3D printed table was set with wine and (Akron-made) beer, I ran into MakerGear Founder and CEO Rick Pollack, who pointed out that in addition to the front-and-center BAAM, the AES team keeps a MakerGear M2 on the desk in the office. As Schmidt had highlighted earlier, more than 90% of AES’ expenditures to date have been spent on Ohio-made products; the BAAM was made in Henderson, the Quintax machine in Stow, and as we’ve seen, MakerGear hails from Beachwood with a nearby production facility.

Clare and I had the opportunity to sit down with Schmidt and with Rogers to learn more about the ins and outs of additive manufacturing in Ohio, and on the grander scale.

“AES started as a consulting service, it wasn’t going to do any 3D printing,” Schmidt told us. “I was at Caterpillar for five years, and in the additive department my last year there, working on design for additive, using service bureaus. After working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I saw an opportunity with BAAM.”

After starting to work with Bader in October 2015 on what would become AES, and eventually progressing with investment — working closely with Bader’s family business, OGS Industries, from which AES ultimately spun off — Schmidt led the way to procuring one of 13 BAAM systems operable in the world (and the only one currently available for commercial contracting). BAAM is paving the way for AES’ goal to be the global leader in large scale additive manufacturing services — though, Schmidt told us, they are not necessarily married to only that technology.

“When we started, the only option was BAAM. We’re not tied to BAAM; we want to be the experts in large-scale 3D printing,” he explained. “We’ve been talking to Thermwood about their LSAM, and to others. LSAM has advantages and disadvantages compared to BAAM. Having them side by side, and having that knowledge, would be cool.”

Other opportunities in large-scale 3D printing like LSAM would offer additional capabilities, providing AES’ growing customer list with more options to meet their needs. The company’s goal, Schmidt explained, isn’t to compete with what comes off, for example, a Fortus 900; AES is competing with tooling. The functional capabilities of the technology at hand and notably with materials have a lot to offer; Schmidt noted that their primary material suppliers are SABIC, which has been increasing its materials for 3D printing and dedication to the future of additive manufacturing, and Techmer, along with some from PolyOne.

“Anything running pellets will fit in our workflow; we’ve got to get away from filament,” Schmidt said.

That workflow is set to expand, as the space AES is in, across the parking lot from OGS, upped the amp availability and has enough power capabilities to supply three large 3D printers and three to four routers. This is a strategic move, Schmidt said: “We can grow here. We won’t be successful with just one printer.”

That growth comes in the form of not only adding to hardware capabilities, but through collaboration and contact with partner companies; GE Additive has been among these, and Clare and I enjoyed the opportunity to sit down next with GE’s Rogers to learn more from the perspective of a larger player that has been making some major waves in the industry. And, as Rogers had noted in his earlier presentation, he was looking forward to a day of not talking about That Fuel Nozzle, providing a refreshing look at everything else GE is involved in when it comes to additive.

“There’s some cool stuff going on,” Rogers began. “There’s an additive manufacturing cluster in Northeast Ohio, starting with eight members already, without any funding. We’ll hear more about that very soon. This is starting to be a real attractor to the region, as it goes from Rust Belt to Tech Belt. The area had its hayday with manufacturing, but is reasserting itself as a tech hub from Southwest Pennsylvania to Northeast Ohio all the way over to Toledo. There’s also an additive manufacturing cluster forming in Southwest Pennsylvania. There’s a lot of room for economic development in this area; many companies are locating or relocating here.”

AES in Akron, Ohio on June 1, 2017

While GE, as a larger company, can’t operate with the transparency of some smaller endeavors, I did ask Rogers what he could share with us. No word, of course, on the 3D printer GE is purported to be developing, which Mohammed Ehteshami, Vice President of Additive Integration, had mentioned in passing at the recent Materialise World Summit, as that (potential?) project stays under wraps. We did discuss some of GE’s other approaches, including Rogers’ hope for materials development. In-house materials from GE, he said baldly, aren’t the way. While the company has previously shared with us details about materials development for additive manufacturing, Rogers’ vision reaches beyond GE.

“I’m driving for open source materials development,” he explained, using HP’s open materials platform as an example, leaning toward a “qualification process for other people’s materials.”

Looking to his levels layout of additive manufacturing, Rogers noted that, “level one additive has a ton of value for low-volume manufacturing,” as he sees a future in replacing currently used rapid prototyping and tooling processes.

“To draw a parallel, powder metallurgy was going to change the industry 25 years ago,” he said. “This became apparent especially in automotive transmission gears; PM parts replaced traditional parts. There are no more forged gears. This was a niche that PM took over — AM will find its niches and take five percent of total manufacturing.”

While a 5% share of the overall $12 trillion manufacturing industry is nothing to sneeze at, Rogers’ forecast does position additive manufacturing somewhat less optimistically than other market share estimates. He knows that, but mentions that as additive manufacturing currently accounts for about 0.05% of that overall total, he’s “thinking of a 100-fold increase” in size. The key to this increase will lie in additive manufacturing successfully finding and capturing its niches.

Austin Schmidt (L) and Andrew Bader

As 3D printing grows as an industry itself and as a part of the greater manufacturing world, efforts such as this seen at AES underscore the importance of industry education. As Schmidt and Bader noted several times, some customers they had reached out to were completely unfamiliar of the offerings available to them from large-scale 3D printing. While it can be easy for those working with additive technologies on a daily basis to immediately see and understand opportunities, word has not yet spread so widely as to spur significant mainstream adoption.

As more big players with well-known names — like GE, Goodyear, and SABIC — become more vocal about their understanding of and participation in the additive world, and smaller operations like AES reach out directly to customers and manufacturing operations, adoption opportunities increase. GE is adding as well to these efforts through ensuring that students, both K-12 and at the university level, have increased access to the newest technologies. Expert work can also help to spur business adoption, as the CEO of Sculpteo recently told us, adding to more of what that company calls Power Users continuing to drive the industry forward as it becomes more professional.

Share your thoughts in the Additive Engineering Solutions forum at 3DPB.com.

[Photos: Sarah Goehrke]

 

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