By: Geoff Giordano

As additive manufacturing with lasers gains a foothold in a disparate range of industries, it could become known more for what it subtracts, for instance:

Production costs, fuel costs, retooling issues, part weight, lead time between design and finished product and even certification paperwork. All are being dramatically reduced as laser-additive manufacturing grows more prevalent in producing everything from highly customized consumer and medical products to vital automotive and aviation parts.

The Laser Institute of America, globally renowned laser application and safety advocates since 1968, put LAM technology at the forefront of its fourth-annual Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM) Workshop on February 29-March 1. Held once again in the cradle of the U.S. energy industry, LAM 2012 gave a record crowd of nearly 200 attendees an up-to-the-minute look not only at traditional laser cladding practices, but the cutting-edge future of photonic manufacture.

Expert keynote speakers Terry Wohlers and Dr. Ingomar Kelbassa of Fraunhofer ILT held a standing room-only audience rapt during the two-day event as they detailed advances in rapid production using powder bed and freeform methods.

LAM has been responsible for a slew of eyebrow-raising progress, they noted:

•Boeing, which uses the technology for 200 parts in 10 production platforms, can reduce a stack of certification paperwork to two sheets of paper.

• Airbus is producing thousands of brackets that connect aircraft galleys and lavatories, saving 50 to 80 percent of part weight — and $2.5 million in fuel annually on short-haul flights for every 220 pounds (110 kilograms) eliminated.

• Fraunhofer ILT can make an 80-blade high-pressure compressor BLISK (blade-integrated disk) with high-speed laser metal deposition in under two minutes per blade — 160 minutes total — near net shape. Compare that with conventional five-axis milling, which removes 80 to 90 percent of material — and takes more than 180 hours.

• So-called “personal” 3D printers — non-industrial units that cost from $500 to few a thousand dollars — grew from about 66 units sold worldwide in 2007 to nearly 6,000 by 2010.

• LAM was estimated to be a $1.3 billion industry in 2010, with compound annual growth of 24 percent; it likely grew into a $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion industry by 2011.

Wohlers, who began his consulting firm Wohlers Associates 25 years ago in Fort Collins, CO, quoted progress on many fronts as detailed in his “Wohlers Report 2011,” noting an exceptional amount of LAM activity in Australia and South Africa. He enlightened attendees about small firms like Digital Forming, Shapeways and Origo that offer a slew of customizable consumer products. He enthused about radical projects from a dramatically redesigned bearing for a clothes dryer to the wing of an ultralight craft created as one piece complete with hinged flap. He even raised the possibility of “printing” electronics or battery materials that conform to product shapes.

“We have a lot of fun in this area because it’s moving so fast,” he enthused. “So many new opportunities are developing in systems and materials and services.”

Kelbassa summarized the promise of LAM’s CAD-based flexibility succinctly: “Complexity for free. Individualization for free.”

“Small parts like fittings made of titanium can be made by the hundreds within an hour,” said Dr. Jim Sears, director of the Additive Manufacturing Laboratory at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, and executive director of the Quad City Manufacturing Laboratory. And “legacy parts are a great opportunity. If you look at aerospace manufacturing, 20 years ago we had 20 different aircraft being designed; today we have one — one major military aircraft being designed in this country and a number of commercial aircraft being designed. It’s changed the metrics of how you do business.”

A significant component of advancing LAM is not just being the provider of technology, but being a strong guiding partner to help clients capitalize on the potential cost savings.

“It’s important to engage your customer,” Sears advised. “Designs made for castings or forgings aren’t necessarily the best way to do build-up. If you can get with the design engineers… you can design for minimum weight. You can put holes in stuff; you don’t need to put metal where you don’t need it.”

Scott Killian, an expert in emerging technologies for EOS North America, noted that in addition to his firm’s rapid-prototyping work, “we’re really looking at moving our technology into manufacturing, and we’re working with a lot of people… that are actually doing manufacturing with our platforms (plastics and metals).” EOS has four customers going to market with titanium implant products, he said.

“These platforms do have cost advantages; it can be expensive compared to traditional methods, but in a lot of cases people find their designs are difficult to produce or there are long lead times, where as this technology can come in and produce parts in a matter of days,” Killian explained. One EOS aerospace customer had a “very simple box” made of composite that was replaced with a high-temperature PEEK part, slashing the original’s 36-week lead time to about a week.

The good news continued as Dr. Richard Grylls, senior additive manufacturing specialist with Optomec, told the packed audience his firm has installed more than 150 LAM systems in more than 12 countries. Those systems do everything from make custom dental implants and pelvic bone-fixation plates, to repair cast-iron impellers, to mold tires. One Optomec customer reports $1 million a year in savings; others have reduced repair costs up to 30 percent, repair times up to 50 percent and improved part weight ratios by 40 percent.

Of course, LAM 2012 also focused on the latest success stories in the more traditional uses of laser cladding to repair and prevent corrosion and wear. Representatives from “gold” sponsor Joining Technologies, VITO-Flemish Institute for Technological Research NV, Hayden Laser Services, and “bronze” sponsors POM Group and Titanova, detailed their latest work. (To view presentations and video excerpts of speakers from LAM 2012, visit www.lia.org/conferences/lam/program2012.)

Workshops veterans and newcomers alike found plenty to pique their interest.

“I’m basically here to scout out laser-additive manufacturing and see what it’s about, see if it‘s something we may be interested in,” said senior staff engineer Dave Siddle of Kennametal in Latrobe, PA. “We’re keeping an eye on this to see if it’s something we need to be a part of. All the speakers have been very good; we have the “Wohlers Report,” and it’s good to hear what he had to say in person.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Ashish Dasgupta, research and development manager at Focus: Hope in Detroit, MI, has attended all four LAM worksops. “We have several different operations; we have a full-fledged manufacturing floor where we do machining; we also do laser cladding, mainly for government applications,” he said. “We’re applying a modern technology to some old parts that are expensive, and then seeing whether we can squeeze some more life out of them so the government doesn’t have to keep spending a huge amount of money to buy new ones. These things were not there 10 years back. Now the tools are available; how we apply them and get the certifications — these are the current challenges.”

Even Wohlers enthused about LAM, attending most of the 24 total sessions. “The presentations were excellent this morning. I had two full pages of notes, and I’m learning quite a lot.”

Stepping back into his role as prognosticator, he sees new and more lucrative opportunities on the horizon “because some of the biggest corporations in the world are making big commitments to this. Government agencies as well are wanting to use this to stimulate product development and new ways to manufacture, new ways to use products, entirely new types of products — and that creates new businesses.”

Ever conscious of crafting a uniquely informative event that evolves with the industry, LIA officials and LAM chair people held a session immediately after the program concluded to begin devising improvements for 2013. Visit the LAM website, www.lia.org/lam, for updates about next year’s workshop.