3d printing has forever changed the way parts and products can be manufactured, we speak with Frank Herzog: CEO & President of Concept Laser

CEO:  You have been nominated for various awards over the years including top 50 in Bavaria 2014, best CEO in additive manufacturing and last year as finalist for the German Future Prize 2015. These are all very prestigious awards and great recognition. Can you tell us why you think the project with the title “3D Printing in Civil Aircraft Manufacturing” was so well received by the judges? What was innovative about this project?

Frank Herzog: In essence, the project is about a so-called bracket used on board the Airbus A350 XWB as the first titanium part made by additive manufacturing. It is a “bionic” fastening and connecting element. Previously, it was milled part made of aluminium (Al); now it is a printed titanium (Ti) part with optimized topology that weighs approx. 30 % less while being more resistant. Material is only used where forces are actually acting. The new design is difficult or even impossible to manufacture using conventional methods. The jury was impressed by the project’s high level of innovation, the cost-effective implementation and the significant environmental aspect due to the weight reduction and the environmentally compatible manufacturing process.Ultimately, Concept Laser received the accolade because the procedure meets the most stringent standards, of civil aviation in this case, and the manufactured product will be used in the Airbus A350 XWB after successful validation. Faster cycle times, on-demand production, less costly components and unparalleled freedom of design make 3D metal printing highly interesting for the aviation industry. Generally, the laser melting technology is capable of producing safety-relevant parts that are even better, more lightweight and durable than today’s conventionally produced parts. Moreover, sustainability and conservation of resources along with an improved cost structure are hallmarks of the process.

CEO: You are very much regarded as one of the lead pioneers in the field of powder bed-based laser melting. Has concept laser been born out of this pioneering work and when did Concept Laser actually form?

FH: From early on, I have been fascinated by metal as a construction material, not least due to my training as a precision mechanic with Siemens. Also while studying mechanical engineering, the topic of metal processing continued to intrigue me. So in 1996, I thought that what was possible with plastic sintering technology should be applicable to metal powder as well – the layer-wise construction of an end product using a laser.

This idea ultimately led to the development of a manually operated test setup, the world’s first attempt at a 3D metal printer so to speak. Tensions in the part and incompletely molten metal powder were the major challenges I was facing initially. However, after some hard work we were able to overcome these challenges by developing stochastic exposure and using a solid-state laser, which my wife had been working with as a removal laser in mould construction during her diploma thesis. Based on this expertise, my wife Kerstin Herzog and I founded the Concept Laser GmbH in Lichtenfels in 2000. We started with a very small team of four and presented the world’s first industrial 3D metal printer at the Euromold in Frankfurt in 2001. Initially, the market was rather sceptical, because this method of manufacturing pure metal parts had been virtually unknown until then.

But the whole team firmly believed in the technology. After the pioneering years, success did come eventually when some users grasped which strategic chances additive manufacturing was opening up and also the machine technology did, step by step, come up to the ambitious expectations. In hindsight, this was an industrial success, maybe even a paradigm shift in the world of manufacturing that one very rarely has the chance to observe during a lifetime. Since then the company has been growing continuously. Turnover, orders received and staff numbers soared with every year that passed. Today, Concept Laser has about 65 patents and about 120 patents pending. Some 650 installed machines at present make Concept Laser one of the major driving forces of powder bed-based laser melting of metal.

CEO: Which industries is Concept Laser mainly focused on and what is the advantage of the use of your technology for the different industries?

FH: 3D metal printing opens up numerous options for lightweight construction, topology optimisation and boosting component performance. The keywords here are: functional integration, lightweight construction potential, bionics and weight reduction, conservation of resources, waste reduction, freedom of geometry, manufacturing in one process, fewer assembly steps, on-demand production and improved cost structure, e.g. through unmanned production 24 hours a day. Current challenges in manufacturing give the laser melting technology a clear edge over conventional manufacturing strategies such as milling or casting in many industries. As already mentioned, this is happening in the aerospace industry where milled parts for example are replaced by lightweight components with optimised topology which are moreover faster and more cost-effectively produced by additive manufacturing.

In the automotive industry, applications range from gearbox housings to car seats and technical components. For example, additively manufactured nodes are linked with laser-welded profiles to form a car body with the option of just-in-sequence production. In dental technology, the additive manufacturing process is ideally suited for example to create dental prostheses or upper dentures, as it allows a high accuracy of fit and customisation.

This also applies to applications in medical technology such as for brain, hip or spine implants. Tailored to the injury and to the patients, the technology becomes indispensable due to the solutions’ durability and accuracy of fit. Moreover, the technology is interesting for tool making, e.g. for form-fitting tempering processes. Finally, there is the relatively young jewellery segment. Jewellery can be produced quickly and in any design desired.

CEO: What has been the most significant role Concept Laser has played in 3D printing in your opinion?

FH: It is difficult to think of just one aspect since a lot has happened in the past 16 years. For me personally, the development of the LaserCUSING® process, i.e. 3D metal printing, has been a major highlight. It has provided the foundation for everything else there was to follow. Thanks to numerous excellent innovations, Concept Laser has ultimately become the technology leader. For example, the presentation of the world’s first industrial 3D metal printer in 2001, the first machine to process reactive materials, the first quality monitoring/assurance solutions, the machine with the largest build envelope worldwide, machine solutions with 1,000 watts laser output etc. Moreover, the issue of safety has top priority for me.

I believe that we are responsible to assure the highest level of safety for machine operators, especially when handling reactive materials. The next major challenge will be to convert the machine concepts from prototyping or small series application into a cost-effective solution for the series production of metal parts in line with the main idea of “Industrie 4.0”. With our concept of the “AM Factory of Tomorrow” we are leading innovations yet again. All our activities are ultimately aimed at establishing and advancing 3D metal printing in the industry.