With the aim of creating a complete production cell for additively manufacturing aluminum components used within the automotive and aerospace industries, the NextGenAM project has established its first pilot plant in Varel, northern Germany.
The pilot plant will operate from the facility of project partner Premium AEROTEC, a subsidiary of multinational aerospace organization Airbus Group. Industrial 3D printing solutions provider EOS and automotive manufacturer Daimler are also jointly involved in the NextGenAM project’s development.
“With this collaborative pre-development project, we are taking a significant step towards achieving cost-effectiveness in metal 3D printing throughout the process chain,” said Jasmin Eichler, Director of Research Future Technologies, Daimler AG.
“The project lays the cornerstone for the future realization of larger quantities in the automotive series production process – with the same reliability, functionality, longevity, and economy as for components from conventional production.”
Building a smart factory
In 2017, German partners Premium AEROTEC, Daimler, and EOS jointly initiated the NextGenAM project to examine the stages of the metal 3D printing process such as transportation of materials between machines and post-processing, to develop automated solutions for serial production smart factory system.
This automated solution is intended to cut down on the manufacturing time and cost of current industrial metal 3D printing systems using sophisticated systems of digital data collection, i.e., Industry 4.0.
Dr. Tobias Abeln, CTO at EOS, stated: “The integration of the AM process in an automated production line is an important milestone for the broad application of our technology in series production scenarios.”
The NextGenAM pilot facility
The new purpose-built pilot facility comprising of various EOS M 400-4 four-laser system for industrial metal 3D printing at the center of the production chain. These systems are equipped with compatible modules including powder stations connected to a stand-alone setup and unpacking station.
This allows automation for filling and emptying processes involving aluminum material. Furthermore, setting up the system for a new build job, as well as unpacking the built components from the powder bed can be carried out independently to increase productivity. The 3D printed components are also transported between stations under protective gas in a container using a fully automated guided vehicle.
In addition, post-processing has been automated through a mobile robot. This robot transports the build platform with the parts from the setup station into a furnace for subsequent heat treatment. The same robot then removes the platform carrying it to a 3D optical measurement system for quality assurance. Finally, the build platform is separated into parts with a saw preparing the components ready for further use. This streamlined process enables the production of complex, lightweight and robust components.
“In this project we have already succeeded in significantly reducing the production cost per part, thus creating an economic perspective for large-scale digital 3D printing factories,” added Dr. Thomas Ehm, CEO of Premium AEROTEC.
This automated process chain will be tested over the next few months through production data and component audits.
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Featured image shows the pilot production chain at Premium AEROTEC in Varel, northern Germany. Image via EOS.