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Interview Corona Crisis - Boost or Brake for AM-Technologies?

Editor: Nicole Kareta

The foundry industry is suffering from the decline in production in the automotive industry and the resulting lower demand for metal components. Does this development affect additive manufacturing processes? Tina Johnscher answers this question in an interview.

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"Gaps in the supply chain can be closed by additive manufacturing, at least when it comes to spare parts and machine parts."
"Gaps in the supply chain can be closed by additive manufacturing, at least when it comes to spare parts and machine parts."
(Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay )

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: The foundry industry is complaining about interrupted supply chains but also about a lack of demand due to the decline in production - especially in the automotive industry. Does this problem also affect the trend in additive manufacturing?

Tina Johnscher: The current crisis situation is rather a driver for additive manufacturing. By using this technology, even smaller quantities can be produced economically - either directly or through additive manufactured tools - which ideally take up lightweight design aspects and thus simplify the retooling of casting systems.

However, it must be taken into account that companies are usually not as willing to invest in an economic crisis. This could slow down the spread of additive manufacturing as companies would first have to invest in equipment such as printers and materials and the development of know-how.

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: Do you believe that additive manufacturing, in view of interrupted supply chains and lack of demand, will increasingly complement or even replace conventional manufacturing processes such as casting in production? What role do costs play here?

Tina Johnscher: Additive manufacturing will not replace conventional manufacturing processes in the foreseeable future because it is not suitable for these cases. However, gaps in the supply chain can be closed by additive manufacturing, at least when it comes to spare parts and machine parts. The cost of spare parts also plays a negligible role here, since the downtime of large-scale plants causes significantly higher costs. However, the investment costs for the procurement of industrial additive manufacturing equipment are high - but the advantage of being able to react more quickly to changing demand could compensate for this after a short time.

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: The production lines of the automotive industry in Europe are almost at a standstill. As a result, demand for cast components is declining sharply. What opportunities could foundries use to move into other markets by using 3D printing?

Tina Johnscher: Additive manufacturing - used in prototype construction - accelerates product development enormously. Innovation cycles can be shortened, making it easier to enter new markets. The direct production of final components via additive manufacturing could of course also serve markets that require more individually adapted parts or small series, such as the (special) mechanical engineering, aviation or even shipping industries. However, it takes a lot of time and work to build up the necessary know-how and to earn the customers’ trust. Companies also have the possibility to enter markets which are similar to the automotive industry, e. g. markets for agricultural and construction machinery.

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: According to current reports, the Volkswagen Group wants to produce health masks using 3D printing. In times of the corona crisis - to what extent could additive manufacturing give companies new opportunities with regard to market gaps, innovation and materials? Do the circumstances provide an opportunity for companies to enter new markets?

Tina Johnscher: When companies look at the possibilities of additive manufacturing, it also increases the creativity of product developers and designers, and opens their eyes to new products and markets. Crisis situations are always a driver for innovation, since it is especially economic pressure that makes the necessity of constant innovation clear. The pressure to deal with new potential markets, materials and products will have a lasting effect on many industries. The current global crisis highlights the dependence of many industries and companies on international trade. Additive manufacturing can be of great benefit to companies in this regard: it enables them to close supply bottlenecks and react flexibly to volatile requirements. However, in order to use additive manufacturing successfully, flexible adaptation and rapid response to emerging needs are necessary. This must also be reflected in the company management.

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: An advantage of additive manufacturing is the flexibility regaring shape and material usage as well as the fast manufacturing process. Is additive manufacturing superior to conventional processes in times of crisis?

Tina Johnscher: This cannot be generalized. If a product is manufactured in large quantities, other processes are certainly superior to additive manufacturing. Respiratory masks and other medical accessories are currently manufactured using 3D printing due to the fact that local supply bottlenecks have to be overcome. This is where the strengths of additive manufacturing become apparent: The corresponding equipment can be used quickly and without expensive conversions and is often available at many locations. The advantage of flexibility in conversion and batch size can of course also be applied to other products.

However, the production speed in additive manufacturing depends strongly on the component size and the required post-processing effort. Additive-manufactured metal parts - like many castings - must be heat-treated, whereby surface treatment usually has to be included in the calculation, as the surface roughness is often very high. This is another reason why additive manufacturing is currently not used for large series.

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: So what is your conclusion on additive manufacturing in the context of the corona crisis? Do you have action recommendations for foundries?

Tina Johnscher: Basically, I recommend that companies do not invest in promising technologies thoughtlessly, but rather consider what the technology is to be used for and which markets or new products the company wants to enter before making a purchase. Since there are many different additive processes and suppliers, companies should also consider the matter in depth before making investments.

SPOTLIGHTMETAL: Thank you for the interview, Ms. Johnscher!

The Additive Manufacturing Coordination Center

The Additive Manufacturing Coordination Center, which is affiliated with Bayern Innovativ GmbH, acts as a hub that networks all the key players and newcomers to 3D printing and links activities related to this future-oriented subject. The Coordination Office wants to make it easier for small and medium-sized companies in particular to get started in additive manufacturing.

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