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Copper and Ceramics 3D Printing Service Opens at Schunk Group

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Schunk Group is a 9,100-person ceramics, sintering, and ultrasonic welding company. Now, the German firm is expanding into additive manufacturing (AM) by offering a 3D printing service for copper and ceramics using AIM3D‘s composite extrusion method (CEM) process.

3D Printing with Metal and Ceramic Pellets

CEM is a printing method resembling bound metal extrusion except in that it uses metal or ceramic pellets instead of bound metal rods or filaments. This makes for a more cost-effective and rapid production method. Building on previous experience with metal injection molding (MIM), Schunk will produce parts using AIM3D¨s ExAM 255 printer. The company will also develop pure copper, copper alloys and nickel-based materials (Inconel, Hastelloy-X) for CEM. As a service, Schunk will produce small series and perhaps even unique items that are not viable with MIM.

In addition to the usual electronics applications, the company will target applications related to “low-loss energy transmission, such as e-mobility, welding and hardening technology, as well as in the field of energy supply.” This is notable given Schunk´s experience in rail and car battery systems as well as its extensive experience in welding.

I’d bet that the company has one or two internal applications for parts that have driven it to seek more scale by offering a service. This could offset costs, especially those related to further automation that would let it deploy the technology more widely. Schunk has disclosed that it has made “induction hardeners (inductors) for gear wheels in the automotive sector and for chain wheels on chainsaws”. It is also interested in “electrical contact pickups, e-motors, coils and transformer components” and “applications with good sliding properties, for example low-volume batches of plain bearings.”

The firm sees more applications in “aerospace, automotive, rail and shipbuilding; parts for drive units, interior/exterior components as well as reengineering solutions, medical instruments and prosthetics, tool making, sporting goods, construction, jewelry, consumer goods and industry.”

¨In general, every AM process offers design and cost benefits compared to conventional manufacturing strategies. Design-wise with the use of bionic geometries and cost-wise in terms of material consumption and tool-free production. The CEM process from AIM3D achieves high densities, high degrees of hardness and high conductivity values for products made of copper. This is unmatched by other AM processes. What’s more, the ExAM 255 from AIM3D featuring CEM system technology is a multi-material printer. So we can also consider multi-component 3D part applications,” said Christian Stertz, project manager for systems engineering at Schunk.

The Market Entry

This market entry is notable for a few reasons:

This is a materials and manufacturing company that has decided to skip a few steps in the value chain and focus on parts as a service. We’ve seen this before with VIctrex, doing so for its PEEK implants, and BASF, founding Replique to make spare parts. I think that this is a very astute move and will get Schunk to a position of having much more margin, control, and profitability in additive than if it would have as just one of many materials suppliers. It will also be able to produce more 3D printed automotive components at scale by reducing the costs through its service. These firms are taking a new challenge and opportunity and meeting it head on, in putting them in a more advantageous position. This is especially valuable if we perceive a further commoditization of materials and increased competition from China.

Another reason this is notable is that Schunk opted to focus on copper. Copper has been a notoriously difficult thing to 3D print, with only electron beam melting (EBM), laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) and binder jet just available for a few years now. Even copper 3D printing as a service is rare. This means that Schunk is able to offer something quite novel to many players. Rather than be the umpteenth company with LPBF, it is one of few players with copper.

Parts 3D printed with AIM3D's pellet extruder.

Screenshot from the AIM3D website.

Another notable detail is that the company will also offer 3D printed ceramics as a service. 3D printed ceramics are currently very niche, but companies such as Steinbach and Bosch currently offer it. This could be a potentially multi-million dollar segment, if enough parties invest in making it happen. Ceramics has unmet performance for characteristics like chemical, abrasion, and temperature resistance. Complex series of ceramics components are being 3D printed, but at a small scale. Xjet and other firms offer ceramics 3D printing. Nanoe makes it much more accessible by allowing customers make some ceramics parts on FDM machines. Altogether, the market will certainly expand.

Schunk is also not going to market with an established vendor. Instead, it has opted to beg big on a three-year old startup. AIM3D is not widely known or understood in an industrial setting, so this could be a big break for it.  One other advantage is that the company thinks that “higher conductivity values ​​on the surface and within the components compared to other additive manufacturing processes.” All in all an interesting and exciting development for us.

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