We’ve been expecting big things since mid-2016 when global giant General Electric (GE) announced its billion-dollar intentions in the additive manufacturing industry. With more big names getting into 3D printing, growth in the industry has seen an undeniable pickup of momentum. 3D printing is growing up, and major investments from major players are a key to unlocking maturation in the technology. Concept Laser, company Founder and CEO Frank Herzog explained to me at formnext, was behind the first commercialized metal additive manufacturing system to hit the market – and this notable pedigree served as the basis for seeing these systems onto the market, carried recently by the steam behind the massive engine that is GE (and now, GE Additive).
I sat down with Herzog immediately following the official, highly-anticipated public unveiling of the new Project A.T.L.A.S. (Additive Technology Large Area System) in Frankfurt this past week, and we watched from the top of the GE Additive stand as crowds continued to gather around the machine that had until so recently been behind the curtain. The morning’s announcement, anticipated as it was, effectively opened the product proceedings at formnext 2017, a massive show full of high-profile tech introductions – and this one was well attended, if not full of detailed information. The beta machine, in fact, was in short order surrounded by ropes and no-photography signs; it isn’t yet in its final form.
A.T.L.A.S. itself may remain behind, if not a physical curtain, somewhat of a shroud of corporate secrecy, but Herzog was more than willing to share the story of the journey that got us to the rise of the curtain and a look into what may lie ahead on the metallurgical path.
“It’s quite a journey for us. My own journey has been a bit over 20 years now, since I was an apprentice at Siemens. It was there that I learned to work a machine lathe, to produce metal – and there that I learned I love metals and wanted to be an engineer,” Herzog told me of his own path, which led him to enroll in university in the mid-1990s, for which he worked weekends to pay his own way through.
Herzog’s university experience was formative for more than his love for engineering; he also met his wife, and so began professional affiliations through her family, during this time. Her uncle’s company had purchased one of the first stereolithography (SLA) machines in Europe in 1990 – and when Herzog saw it, and observed parts coming out of it, he had one pivotal question.
“I asked her uncle, ‘Why is this not possible in metals?’ And he said, ‘Try it.’ I started with a piece of paper and a pencil; it was just a concept. That was the start of everything,” Herzog told me of the conception of Concept Laser.
“With my wife, I created this concept of one laser, working with three technologies. We developed it in under two years, and showed it at Euromold 16 years ago; it was the first commercial metal printer.”
Moving onward, Concept Laser ran into trouble along with the rest of the global economy in 2008, fighting for what Herzog noted as being “the black zero in the spreadsheet – and we made it.” Following the economic crisis in 2009, which the company again weathered, Herzog and his team realized that they would need a strong strategic approach to continue to rise above market troubles. Around 2010, popular media started to pick up on 3D printing, leading into the well-known years of hype that boosted and ultimately troubled the entire industry.
“There was the 3D printing hype, in the media and on the TV – but that wasn’t our technology. Still, it was very important for metals, as CEOs of big industrial companies started asking, ‘What are we doing with 3D printing?’ They were rapidly finding out the benefits of this technology, its freedom of design,” he explained. “From 2012 through today, then, we have seen dramatic growth; as it continued, we knew we needed a big partner.”
In 2015 in particular, as the company experienced a wave of major interest and growth, Herzog recognized that it might be time to consider a bold strategy. Concept Laser, a family-owned company, operated on well-tuned principles of communication; Herzog talked with his wife, his father-in-law, his uncle-in-law, to determine whether the company could continue to manage as a family-owned business. In 2016, the team determined that they wanted a big partner to manage that growth – and in short order received 48 inquiries of interest. They whittled this down, and down, and down, until finally GE emerged as the right partner; the global company closed on an acquisition of 75% of Concept Laser in December 2016, with full ownership to come through the deal.
“From that moment on, our journey started,” Herzog said with a gesture over the broad GE Additive showing at formnext.
“Since then, it has been a lot different. We are running very fast. We still have to work on being a team,” he noted candidly. “We are investing into our machines to improve them, and investing into A.T.L.A.S. We have had some concerns regarding the timeline of release to market; we had wanted 2017. The basic idea for this came from Cincinnati, as we have joined expertise in machine building and started to work together. It is a very fast pace. It makes me proud that we worked together, and get along. This will be a new chapter in powder bed technology.”
Herzog pointed specifically to the gantry operation, the scalability of the system, the build rates, and the overall speed of production possible through the process developments. With a build volume of one cubic meter, the machine is still able to see a reduction in the powder necessary – by 65-70%, he noted, to build that size, as conditions have been optimized to the process.
“This machine solves our limits,” he said.
As a beta introduction, the system remains in development, as build rate remains in focus and real-world applications are in view. The build rates of the system, he said, depend on the part in question and the design and print parameters for each.
“The story is not the build rate,” Herzog noted.
“We need less engineers, less production, no casting; servicing needs less infrastructure. Parts are more robust and made faster. This system saves fuel, and is better for the environment. Hopefully this doesn’t sound ignorant, but this is peanuts [compared to what it will become].”
Current speeds, accuracies, and reliability are being enhanced throughout work on the system as Concept Laser, and GE Additive along for the ride, are among those major manufacturers striving to make additive manufacturing a very real part of the manufacturing industry.
“It’s making the additive possible,” Herzog underscored.
While this system in particular will have a lot to prove once it hits the market in final form, Herzog and his team at Concept Laser are bullish on the prospect of working alongside the world-class resources made available through their affiliation with GE. Materials, processes, servicing, and strategy will continue to develop – and hopefully in the near future we’ll even have more details on the technical aspects behind the promises to work from as well.
Discuss formnext 2017, and other 3D printing topics, at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]