The Next-Gen-AM Project and its Challenges
In the north of Germany, EOS, Daimler, and Premium Aerotec are developing a production line for additive manufacturing. Our affiliate portal MM Maschinenmarkt asked which challenges the three companies are facing in this project.
In the north German town of Varel, the pilot plant of the Next-Gen-AM project commenced operation in summer 2018. In this project, Premium Aerotec (PAG), Daimler, and EOS are developing an automated production system for additive manufacturing. Thomas Bielefeld, Head of Additive Manufacturing at PAG, describes the challenges of this project to MM Maschinenmarkt.
Together with Daimler and EOS, you have set up the first pilot plant for fully automated additive production. Automated production lines have been existing for decades. Why is it so difficult for the industry to automate these new processes?
We do not have to reinvent automation itself. For example, the robot that moves the plate forward is a standard Kuka robot. We even use an older model, because the intelligence is in the gripper. The new thing, however, is that the interfaces at the printer and the unpacking station have to be reprogrammed.
So the communication between the machines is the biggest task you have to master?
Yes, definitely. The interaction of the software with the central control station and the software elements in the individual machines ... Printers, robots, postprocessing machines, the autonomous transport system - all of them have their own interfaces. The greatest challenges are in the area of software development and involve the elimination of bugs and ensuring consistency throughout all systems. That's a very complex subject.
There are companies that offer integrated software packages ...
.... and EOS is one of them. They offer a program for data transfer from the CAD program to the printer. In this case, too, compatibility with other software in our case Catia, in the automotive industry Siemens NX — must be ensured. But we don't just want to print. The essential thing is to ensure that the data chain is consistent right through to the final blank.
…in order for you to be able to use the digital 3D model for quality control as well?
Exactly. We carry out a geometric inspection on the finished component. In addition, a comparison takes place when the final blank has been stress-relieved and is ready for optical measurement - all fully automated. We also use the 3D model to clamp the base plate in the correct position and saw off the component after printing. All this is managed from a central control station to which all systems send their reports. However, it uses its own software, too.
Did you also connect the control station at the ERP or MES levels?
We use SAP as a superordinate system. The control station software is developed in our project AIS. Each company decides independently how the control station is connected to ERP and MES, but in our project the control station software replaces an MES. In principle, we are building a Digital Twin simulating the entire process chain.
You mentioned earlier that you and Daimler use different software. Are there any other differences that you face in the joint project?
In fact, the coordination of all three partners was our first hurdle. The goal was set from the beginning, but the modus operandi had to be clarified. For instance, we have requirements on the future system that differ from those of EOS. This is because we will be using the production for specific applications, but EOS will be selling the systems on and they must therefore remain open to different markets. But since such details have been clarified, the cooperation has been working very smoothly.
According to the latest press release on the Next-Gen-AM project, the aim is "a complete system for the production of aluminum components used in the automotive and aerospace industries". That's pretty inaccurate. What are your concrete goals?
The plant will be put into operation before the end of this year. Until then, several print jobs are to be processed completely automatically one after the other. We want to get as close as possible to 24/7 production. Another result will be a requirement specification for a production-ready machine for additive production — just as we want to specify and purchase it. We will then use them to expand the production line — because a fully automated line with only one printer makes no sense.
This article was first published by MM MaschinenMarkt.
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