The voestalpine Group is continuing its global drive to innovate in the field of pioneering technologies: today a new research and development center for 3D printing of metal parts was opened at the voestalpine site in Düsseldorf.
The voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center will bundle all the Group’s research activities in this field, harnessing the manufacturing process for particularly complex and lightweight metal components for use in aviation and aerospace, the automotive industry, tool manufacturing, etc.
The next step will be more cooperative partnerships and locations in North America and China. In future the raw material required for the process—a specially manufactured metal powder—will be supplied by the Group companies Böhler Edelstahl GmbH & Co KG, Austria, and Uddeholms AB, Sweden.
Wolfgang Eder, Chairman of the Management Board of voestalpine AG © voestalpine AG
voestalpine regards innovation as a strategic driver of growth, making it a key factor in the success of the Group. “As a result of the intensive research and development work undertaken in the past 15 years, voestalpine has developed from a traditional steel manufacturer to become a global leading technology and capital goods group. We want to consistently strengthen this position, and continue to remain at the forefront of developments in new production processes such as additive manufacturing,” says Wolfgang Eder, Chairman of the Management Board of voestalpine AG.
With a record research budget of EUR 150 million for the current business year 2016/17—an increase of 13 percent over the previous year—voestalpine is Austria’s most research-intensive company.
Metal additive manufacturing: a new dimension in production
Additive manufacturing, so-called 3D printing, makes it possible to produce parts such as components with cavities or bionic structures, with completely new shapes and functions, both individually and flexibly, in just a single production step. While 3D printing in plastic reached the series production maturity long ago, the far more complex process of producing metallic products using the metal additive manufacturing process is still in its infancy.
Franz Rotter, Member of the Management Board of voestalpine AG and Head of the Special Steel Division © voestalpine AG
In order to leverage its potential over the long term, the Special Steel Division of the voestalpine Group has founded its own research company at the Düsseldorf site in Germany—the voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center GmbH.
“The new development and test center will continue to research and develop both metal powders and the design and production of metal components using 3D printing. It therefore represents a signficant expansion to our existing material production and processing value chain for the most sophisticated industries,” explains Franz Rotter, Member of the Management Board of voestalpine AG and Head of the Special Steel Division.
From metal powder to finished component
Additive manufacturing generally involves synthesizing components, layer by layer, on the basis of a 3D model. In contrast to traditional production processes such as turning and milling from a single block of metal, this method involves no material losses.
The raw material for metal additive manufacturing is a metal powder of the required composition, e.g. special steel, tool steel, nickelbased, titanium or cobalt-chromium alloys.
For this reason voestalpine is also building up its expertise in producing powder for 3D metal printing, and is investing in special powder atomization facilities at the Group subsidiaries Böhler Edelstahl GmbH & Co KG, Austria, and Uddeholms AB, Sweden. The material produced here will then be turned into finished components by 3D printers at the voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center in Düsseldorf.
Opportunities in specialized niche segments
The potential offered by metal additive manufacturing primarily lies in customized production and complex components. In the automotive industry, for example, it can be used to manufacture replacement parts, prototypes, parts for small batches or for motorsports, all more economically than before and precisely where needed. The option of producing new component geometries also makes it an attractive method of manufacturing lightweight aviation and aerospace components.
In the field of medical technology, the ability to manufacture customized implants such as hip joints clears the way for new, more efficient, and gentler treatment methods. In tool manufacture, 3D printing makes it possible to produce highly complex shapes, for example with integrated cooling and tempering channels.
The voestalpine Additive Manufacturing Center in Düsseldorf, an additive manufacturing center of excellence, started operations in April 2016. The additive manufacturing process produces parts by adding materials, such as metal powder, layer by layer. This is made possible using digital 3D construction data.
During the laser sintering process, a laser heats the metal powder precisely at the prescribed point so that it melts as a wafer-thin layer onto the part.
Research and consulting
Activities at the development and testing center include research into metal powders, as well as learning more about manufacturing parts and their applications. The goal is to provide customers with competent advice on powders and design, as well as to manufacture parts and components on their behalf.
Experience in powder metallurgy
The Special Steel Division subsidiaries Böhler Edelstahl and Uddeholm already have many years of experience in powder metallurgy as a pre-material for highly durable steels. In order to gain further expertise in the manufacture of powders specifically for metal printing, two powder atomization facilities for steel and nickel-based alloys will start operations during the business year 2016/17, one at Uddeholm AB in Hagfors, Sweden, and the second at BÖHLER Edelstahl in Kapfenberg, Austria.
Editing: Frank Lindner