Rapid 2019: Interview with Karl Lindblom & Annika Ölme of GE’s Arcam

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Arcam built upon Sweden’s resources and history in high-performance metals to commercialize EBM. Electron Beam Melting also called EPBF or Electron Powder Bed Fusion is a process where an electron beam in a vacuum chamber melts together metal powders. Arcam was always a bit of a salmon swimming upstream with essentially its own technology. EOS, Concept and others were working on a similar laser based variant which seemed by many to be getting more traction and better results. Arcam was perenially said to produce rougher surface textures, a disadvantage that disappeared once it was optimized for orthopedics production. Arcam turned out to be perfectly capable of making tens of thousands of orthopedic implants with surfaces optimized for bone growth. By powering Lima Corporate and others the firm’s future seemed bright but specific. It seemed for a while that Arcam would be an implant only firm specializing in catering to that industry.

The A2X developed to print turbine blades.

This until a group of, and this must be said visionary/crazy Italians at Avio Aero thought that they could use Arcam’s machines to make turbine blades. Would it be possible for the Swedes to build the Italians a much larger machine to validate this? Received wisdom had it at the time that this was insane and wouldn’t work and if so would be too expensive. The Avio Aero guys were right however and serviceable, cost-efficient turbine blades started to emerge from Arcam machines. The A2X machine the result of this. Avio was later bought by GE along with with Morris this internalized (and kept locked away!) a significant slice of the world’s metal printing expertise. Later GE would mosey down its supply chain to buy Arcam as well in order to ensure that the thousands of printers it needed and the millions of parts it would make would both arrive. Sidestepping vendor lock in the industrial giant went on to invest in both laser and electron beam powder bed and now even has brought to market a binder jetting machine. As a nice added bonus Team USA secured patent access to both Laser and Electron Beam Powder Bed Fusion and European countries could no longer, hypothetically, block US access to these technologies that were so essential to future nuclear warhead and missile production.

Arcams New Spectra H system for larger parts and capacities.

We spoke to Karl Lindholm who is the General Manager of GE’s Arcam unit and Annika Ölme VP of Product Management to see what the future holds for the firm.

What is life like at Arcam?

Karl: Its a very exciting time for us. We’re expanding and moving to a new facility. We’re on our growth trajectory and building something for the future.

How is the EBM technology positioned vis a vis PBF?

Karl: We see it as very much a complementary technology. EBM has its USPs and key advantages and so does Direct Metal Laser Melting. We have a capability is in novel high heat applications and materials for example. For orthopedics, EBM is the natural choice and we see a lot of expanding opportunities there. 

Annika: We also tend to do very well in bulky parts. We have reduced internal stresses and can get high accuracy on comparatively bulky parts for high-performance applications. We do well in high-temperature materials such as nickel superalloys. Materials such as copper are also very difficult if not impossible to process with other technologies. Titanium aluminide is also a very useful material with high strength, low weight, and high heat resistance. 

What are some emerging applications in end-use parts? 

Annika: Turbine blades is an expanding use case in aviation. Our low-pressure turbine blades are on the market and other components will see their very first commercial flight soon. We’re seeing many new implants as well. Applications such as manifolds are also expanding. At the HSS hospital, we’re installing machines at the Hospital for Special Surgery itself. Here we can see our real advantage in orthopedics emerge. We can in this application also exclude some post-processing steps which benefits customers.

What are you up to as a firm? 

Annika: A key step right now is to look at automation. We’re striving for serial production for real parts in several industries. We’re looking at closed systems where the powder is not exposed.

Karl: We’re exploring many possibilities. We’re working together within GE and outside of it. Working together gives us a lot of strength. We’re looking at turnkey solutions, automation, and software. We’ve also always had a focus on health, safety and processes. As a company, we have so much experience in these kinds of things. What we’re doing now is really helping customers go into production. We’re taking our internal experience and transferring it to our customers. We want to help them to become productive with the technology. Serial production is the goal and we’re really looking at reducing overall costs and the per part cost for our customers.

You still through AP&C make and sell powder, is that useful? 

Karl: Having extensive powder knowledge at AP&C is very beneficial to us and our customers. The exchange of knowledge is very valuable. Powder is not just powder, it’s the overall combination of the technology and all of the factors that determine your outcomes. If you’re looking at reducing costs, recycling, new production methods powder is always going to be a part of that equation.

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