By Randy B. Hecht
What does gas have to do with additive manufacturing (AM)? The answers began to emerge in 2016, when Linde, one of the world’s largest industrial gases companies, recognized the opportunity to develop gas application potential along the entire AM process chain. “It starts in the powder atomization, through the actual printing or building process,” says Christoph Laumen, whose team is developing Linde’s AM solutions, “and goes further to all the post-treatment operations.”
Working in partnership with customers like Airbus Group, Linde saw the potential for gas to play an important yet “invisible” role in AM. The company was the first to recognize that by using active gases and a variety of flow characteristics, it could contribute to influencing AM materials’ properties. Its initial focus was on creating a solution that would give customers greater ability “to measure and control the oxygen content and humidity in the powder beds of the print chamber,” he says. This was key to achieving reproducible results and through this saw the launch of the ADDvance line of AM solutions.
As more customers approached his team with requests for advice and solutions, Laumen realized that “we have a competence that very few people in this ecosystem have.” In 2016, the company opened its Linde Global Development Center on Additive Manufacturing and embarked on “a development roadmap for the next three to five years, with more than 30 project ideas that will really make a difference to the industry,” Laumen says.
From inspiration to industrialization
“Some are really visionary,” he says of the projects in development. “It’s really the second and third generation of AM. But there are other things that can increase productivity and improve the traceability and reproducibility of the parts very short term.” As Linde’s research has progressed, the company has seen its role in AM evolve “from satisfying customer demands to really having our own understanding where the technology will go, how it will evolve, and how our role can be going forward.” This positions Laumen’s team to continue to respond to requests but, at the same time, initiate further innovations that accelerate industrialization and create more partnership opportunities.
“We’re really focusing on tailor-made gas mixtures for powder bed fusion and for all major alloy systems. So there is a focus on titanium and aluminum, the ones that are mostly used in the industry right now,” Laumen says. “But we are also looking into gas management, recirculation concepts, recycling systems. To make this technology for mass production, like the automotive industry and consumer goods, you really need to get the costs down. We want to make sure that the technology becomes affordable and gets more viable for a wider industry.”
He estimates that 10 to 15 projects in the current pipeline will be ready to launch by 2025. And although the company has found its path to innovation, it still places high value on industry partnerships and collaboration.
From participant to partner at the Munich Technology Conference (MTC)
“Working with partners has a very long history at Linde, and this is always our preferred model,” Laumen says. “Only by involving partners and lead customers will you really understand the end user requirements. And often it improves agility and speed to market.” He notes that Linde’s current AM partners are “leading global players in their respective areas” and embrace “an open collaboration culture without too much commercial restraint.”
Those goals contributed to Linde’s decision to become one of seven partners of the second Munich Technology Conference. The MTC was kicked-off in 2017 by Oerlikon to create a platform where scientists, manufacturers and politicians discuss the ongoing integration of AM in production processes.
“The MTC event last year demonstrated that it has the potential to bring high-level deciders and influencers together,” Laumen says. “I personally also liked the open spirit very much, and the mutual strive for making AM something great and transformative. Linde has identified AM as one of the future growth areas, and we wanted to make sure that we are well positioned and contributing our fair share. And as partner in 2018, MTC2 gave us the opportunity to talk in more detail to people about what are their key influencing factors and challenges into today’s AM ecosystem – in fact in our workshop the collaboration with over 60 people was great, with people openly giving their insight to help improve the industrialization of AM for all going forward”.
Linde is organized in three geographical hubs, and Christoph Laumen heads all application development for EMEA with a team of 100 engineers. “It’s not only additive. It’s wherever gas plays a role,” he says. “We are quite wide in our expertise, but it always boils down to one point: the gas.”