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Giving form to ideas

The energy service industry is currently pioneering the use of selective laser melting in a broad range of precommercial applications. The technology will be part of product design and life cycle management, although it may be a while before we see it applied in mass production.

Michael Weinhold, CTO of Siemens Energy Management

 

What is selective laser melting (SLM)? This innovative manufacturing process often reminds me of the “beamer” device in the TV series Star Trek: Information, given form, is translated into matter. A laser beam is applied to metal powder particles and welds them into three-dimensional structures, layer by layer. Guided by a CAD blueprint, the substance rapidly hardens into a complex part. Compared to the more established 3-D plastic printing process, the versatile raw materials used in SLM include a range of metal alloys. Often, SLM is grouped in the same category as laser sintering, although – in contrast to a sintering process – it fully melds the particles into a compact mass.

A new global value chain

The stimulation of R&D, including research into suitable materials, is creating a whole new global value chain. Many midsized companies now offer printers that can produce durable, high-precision parts to the specifications of the aircraft and healthcare industries or for use in power turbines. Advances in materials and processing will allow its application to more sophisticated parts –in the future, even gas turbine blades.

 

The process was developed in connection with rapid prototyping, which remains a major area of application: In the development process, parts can rapidly be printed and checked against the scheme, massively speeding up innovation cycles. I’m often surprised to see the different areas where the technology is already being used to give real-life form to ideas. Some weeks ago, I was in Barcelona, where work continues on the Sagrada Família basilica. The craftsmen on site use CAD files to print out detailed scale models of architect Antoni Gaudí’s intricate designs.

From the prototyping context, selective laser melting is now maturing into additive manufacturing processes in the aerospace and automotive industries as well as in healthcare, where SLM machines print synthetic body parts, dental prosthetics, or microstructures for growing skin.

Broad applications in energy

The energy service industry is currently pioneering the technology in the precommercial phase. Three-dimensional printing of certain repair parts for gas turbine burners saves a substantial amount of time. Instead of exchanging entire components, we remove the defective parts and “grow” new structures to replace them. This shows how the technology will impact on the entire value chain, from rapid prototyping and design to manufacturing: It will also eliminate the need for warehousing of spares.

Looking ahead, turbine blades will soon incorporate new cooling structures that would have been impossible to achieve via casting processes, raising not only their efficiency, but also their operational flexibility. Blueprints of spare parts can be modified to allow for wear and tear, improving performance. The scope for other applications in the energy domain is huge, e.g., in cooling structures for power electronics, heat exchangers, or even switchgear.

Author Michael Weinhold is scanned.

Ideas come to life

In the future, our service branch will send not only parts, but software for replacements printed on-site for faster service. Another advantage is that while printing these new parts “downstream” on the front line of service, we can incorporate improved designs and dimensional structures achieved by “upstream” designers whose ingenuity is becoming unconstrained by the limitations of traditional tooling. Ideally, a new component is really an upgrade, leading to better performance and better servicing of our products.

The business of Siemens is affected in several respects. Selective laser melting will be part of product design and life cycle management. It may be a while before we see it applied in mass production, mainly due to cost considerations. But as printers become faster and more affordable, we will see them in more and more manufacturing sites. Siemens is a pioneering company when it comes to integrating digitalization into our designs and our workflows by developing applications, materials, or software for additive manufacturing. Using innovative technology to make ideas come to life is what we do best.

Michael Weinhold, CTO of the Siemens Energy Management division
Picture credits: Illustration: Elisabeth Moch, Photos: Detlef Schneider