Home Materials How Specifically Designed Materials Are Unlocking Full Potential of AM Applications –...

How Specifically Designed Materials Are Unlocking Full Potential of AM Applications – Interview with Equispheres

Canada-based company Equispheres specialises in the development and production of high-performance aluminum powders for additive manufacturing (AM) applications in the automotive, aerospace and defence industries. Their range of powders are engineered to have the ideal properties for the required applications, enabling superior part performance in terms of strength, speed and repeatability. In an interview with 3Druck.com, COO Sascha Rudolph and Product Strategy Analyst Ryan Puddicombe share their insights into the AM materials sector.

Equispheres mission is to inspire a new generation of products and designs enabled by industrial additive manufacturing. The innovative company sees AM as a manufacturing technology increasingly able to compete with legacy manufacturing processes on lead time, quality and cost. They believe that purposefully designed materials are the key to unleashing the full potential of modern AM machines and are committed to advancing the fundamental science and technology of metal powders and powder production.

Interview with Equispheres

In an interview with 3Druck.com, COO Sascha Rudolph and Product Strategy Analyst Ryan Puddicombe emphasise the importance of specially developed materials for additive manufacturing processes and identify the technological innovations within the sector that are critical to the advancement of AM technology. They also share their views on the impact of crises on the industry, and look ahead to how AM could impact supply chains and on-demand manufacturing in the future.

In your opinion, what is the importance of materials that are specifically designed for use in additive manufacturing applications?

The benefits of working with purposefully engineered powders in metal AM are broad and highly impactful on a company’s operations and finances. For example, in the L-PBF process, the more stable melt-pool that Equispheres powders provide leads to greater consistency, better predictability, and a larger effective build window which can be exploited to drastically reduce build time, without sacrificing part quality. With hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars committed in capital equipment, increasing your productivity leads to greater Return on Assets for manufacturers. Operationally, you can benefit from more “first-time-right” prints, easier and faster job turnover, and a safer factory environment.

Traditional atomisation of metal powders has existed since the 1920s. While there have been considerable advancements in these legacy technologies over the last 100 years, they have been eclipsed by the blistering pace of advancement in metal additive manufacturing. As metal L-PBF machines have added more lasers, increased their laser power, and grown the size of their build chambers, one thing has become clear: powder characteristics are incredibly important and should be considered from the planning stage when developing an AM application. Your finished parts will only be as good as your input feedstock. This is not unique to AM, but an important principle in manufacturing. 

Additive manufacturing has developed continuously over the last few years. Which innovations or technological breakthroughs do you consider to be particularly important in the field of materials?

Some of the most exciting and promising developments of recent years include emerging AM-specific alloys, software tools that make DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing) accessible to a wider range of designers and engineers, and the advent of high-powered lasers, beam-shaping, and advanced scanning strategies. These have cumulated in reducing part costs, increasing part performance, and AM gaining acceptance within a broader manufacturing context. 

From our perspective, innovations in the overall AM ecosystem are equally as important as innovations in AM materials: no single segment can thrive in isolation. For AM to continue growing and gaining mainstream acceptance, the challenges must be viewed and approached holistically. We know that by solving the challenges specific to materials we can increase the overall market potential, but without printers to fill and applications to print that potential will remain unrealised. Our end users must be successful if we wish to remain successful over the long term.

An example of these innovations all coming together to result in real, demonstrable improvements for the industry is the work we recently presented with Aconity3D and Eaton.  The short version of the story is that we were able to achieve a roughly 5x improvement in overall job time (not just “theoretical melt rate”).  This took improvements in material (in this case it was our NExP-1 non-explosive AlSi10Mg material), but also required us to leverage a new 3kW laser from IPG, Aconity’s expertise in printer design and integration, advanced scanning strategies and software, and Eaton’s broad expertise in production-level AM manufacturing. It is the compounding effects of all these innovations that are getting AM to where it needs to be.

Moving forward, the evolution of standards and part acceptances principles remains an ongoing challenge for many end users. Qualifications and delta-qualifications are costly and lengthy processes. There is hope that maturing standards and new approaches combined with new tools (possibly including predictive models, in-situ monitoring, and improved machine controls), will reduce the time and cost of new qualifications.

First Corona and now high inflation are major challenges for the whole industry. How do you think the multiple crises will affect the additive manufacturing industry?

The Corona virus pandemic shocked the world’s economies and exposed many of our supply chains. At the time, some pundits claimed it could be the death of global trade as we know it. While those predictions did not come true, manufacturers employing AM technologies were able to highlight the advantages of flexible, local, and on-demand production. Overnight we saw manufacturers shift their entire production to critical medical supplies when the world needed them most. Beyond economics, this effort undoubtedly saved countless lives. In a world that is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), AM technologies will play a crucial role in shaping the supply chains of the future. There are tremendous opportunities for companies who can quickly adopt and execute AM operations strategies.

Persistent inflation and rising interest rates across the Western world have certainly created challenges for the AM industry. Investment capital has become more expensive and scarcer while inflationary pressure has raised the cost of doing business for many. However, these challenges are not unique to AM. All companies, particularly manufacturers, are forced to reevaluate their capital structures and strategic plans. This provides another tremendous opportunity for AM enabled companies and manufacturers looking to adopt the technology. Despite existing for decades, AM remains a disruptive technology yet to become fully mainstream. Resource scarcity and challenging economic conditions have historically created periods of great innovation. 

While there are many examples of great AM applications, there have been few examples of truly innovative AM-centric business models. Perhaps the best example that exists today is Divergent Technologies in California. By building a business around the operational advantages of AM and complimenting it with generative design, vertical integration, robotic assembly, and a scalable factory model Divergent is poised to disrupt multiple industries from automotive to aerospace and defence. These industries have spent decades cultivating complex and highly integrated supply chains that have not been able to quickly adapt to the changing needs of a VUCA world.

The opportunities exist for startups and legacy companies alike to innovate by making prudent but bold investments and changes to their operational strategies. 

What impact do you think additive manufacturing will have on different industries and possibly society as a whole in the coming years?

In the coming years, additive manufacturing will enable new ways of designing, producing, and delivering products across various industries such as automotive, aerospace, and commercial space. The advantages of AM, such as design freedom and optimisation, mass customisation, and greater financial and operational flexibility, are known to us today. It is up to the AM industry to remove the obstacles holding back broader manufacturing from seamlessly adopting and integrating AM into their operations the way that they would a CNC machine or a lathe. 

The novelty of Additive Manufacturing will hopefully wear off and we will see the technologies become a part of the larger toolbox of accepted manufacturing technologies and processes. AM cannot remain a novel technology if we wish to see it become mainstream. While it is unlikely the world will change so drastically that we begin producing everything additively, we may not be far away from a future where nearly every product has interacted with AM at one point. 

AM-enabled supply chains could become a key part of national and corporate sustainability strategies. There remains work to be done in terms of quantifying AM’s sustainability advantages over other production methods, but decentralised manufacturing could lead to system level changes in our net carbon footprint. In Ontario, Canada, for example, transportation represents the largest carbon emitting sector of the economy and is responsible for 36% of all total carbon emissions. 

On-demand production of spare or low-volume parts is another opportunity for AM to show its strengths in the coming years and disrupt the status quo for automotive, aerospace, and heavy industry. The estimated revenue of auto parts stores in the U.S. in 2023 was over $80B. The largest company in this segment, O’Reilly Automotive operates over 6,000 stores in the United States with each store stocking, on average, over 22,000 SKUs and their distribution centres stocking over 150,000 unique SKUs. In 2023, O’Reilly had an inventory turnover ratio of 1.7x and AutoZone, one of their largest competitors, had an inventory turnover of 1.5x. This represents a huge investment that must be made in their stock of inventory each year to maintain their desired service levels across the country. Reworking a supply chain of this magnitude to become AM-enabled would be a monumental effort. But Alstom, a manufacturer of trains, has begun doing exactly that for certain spare and low-volume parts in the rail industry.

The adoption of industrial AM is still in its infancy, yet the potential possibilities it can create are near infinite. Like an AM service provider with a fleet of printers, we could create just about anything, but we do not have the resources to create everything all at once. It is up to our users to focus on business cases with the most potential and the AM industry needs to collectively support them on their journey.

Here you can find further information on Equispheres.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

3DPresso is a weekly newsletter that links to the most exciting global stories from the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry.

Privacy Policy*

You can find the privacy policy for the newsletter here. You can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time. For further questions, you can contact us here.