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India’s Largest Machine Tool Maker Jumps into Metal 3D Printing

BFW India, the South Asian nation’s largest machine-tool manufacturing firm, is getting into the metal 3D printing game. The company has chosen Ashok Varma to head up the sector, giving him the title of Executive Vice President and Global Leader of Additive Manufacturing. Varma, with over 30 years experience in advanced manufacturing – including over a decade in 3D printing in India – has worked in a variety of fields using directed energy deposition (DED), including the aerospace and oil & gas industries. He seems like a perfect choice for the position, as BFW India will be primarily focused on DED metal additive manufacturing (AM), and hopes to emphasize its Made In India credentials as a major selling point for its venture into 3D metal printing.

Ideal for large-scale metal parts, DED applies energy in the form of a laser, electron beam, or plasma arc to metal feedstock, either metal powder or wire, to 3D print near-net-shape parts that must then be machined to the final design. Historically, this technology began as a means of repairing metal parts in aerospace and continues to hold the most potential for large parts in aviation, as well.

A BFW manufacturing facility in Hosur, Tamil Nadu.

Aerospace in India has been booming in recent years, in both the military and civilian sectors, with the industry on pace to represent about $70 billion in economic activity by 2030. This includes not only homegrown companies, but also some of the largest international presences for Western firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. One of the most underreported aspects of the Trump administration, especially at the end of his term, involved the U.S. military’s finalization of a defense pact with India – specifically meant to act as a counterbalance to Chinese military buildup – which has been a major American geostrategic objective going back to the George W. Bush years. With such rapid moves towards embracing AM in general, and metal AM in aviation specifically, characterizing the nature of the Pentagon’s manufacturing grand strategy in the 2020s, BFW India’s timing doesn’t seem at all coincidental.

Although India’s aerospace industry is by no means new, the relative size of the field compared to a country like China (let alone the United States) could actually work to the nation’s advantage given the latest shifts in aerospace manufacturing processes across the whole planet. In other words, while India won’t be able to build its industry from the ground up on an AM footing, it should certainly have much less difficulty reorienting general production methods along the lines of 3D printing than its larger competitors. And this won’t just affect airplanes: the Indian company Agnikul Cosmos, for instance, is already working on 3D printed rocket engines.

The fact that India can go all-in on metal AM in building air- and spacecraft at a time when other, larger actors on the scene already have such vast amounts of capital invested in conventional methods gives the country an asymmetric advantage that could eventually put it close to parity with larger contenders in terms of the size of its market. More importantly, it will certainly make India a leader on the R&D and technology side of things, giving it an ability to influence the rest of the industry far larger than its actual current presence in terms of material investments.

American businesses have been priming the pump in India on this front for some time now, and that strategy is already paying dividends. As much progress as China has been making across the entire spectrum of the industry thus far in its still-brief history, at least in the field of metal AM, it’s going to have to keep up its pace and then some to stay competitive with India.