Siemens unleashes the potential of 3D printing

Sep 19, 2016 | Hot Topics

Ahh, Fall! Here in the Northern hemisphere, a time of cooler temperatures, changing foliage and … PLMish conferences. Analyst events, user conferences, product launches — it’s a busy time in our little world. In order to keep up with it all, I’m switching it up a bit this year and publishing shorter pieces more often on individual topics, rather than ginormous event-driven recaps. To that end,

Siemens PLM held its annual analyst event in Boston recently, presenting the state of the state for many of the products in its portfolio. From CAD to CAE to CAM to PLM to IoT, from the traditional to the cutting edge. One thing that became very clear as the week went on: Siemens AG is making full use of what it acquired nearly 10 years ago. The PLM division’s offerings are integral to many of the AG’s, and PLM and its sister organizations within the AG are working together to introduce new products to the AG’s traditional customers.

One of these areas of collaboration is additive manufacturing. You probably know that broad industrial adoption of additive technologies has been hampered by the relatively short list of materials that could be used, the lack of repeatable quality of the finished product, the size of the object that could be printed and the resulting cost per unit.

Siemens and its partners are knocking down many of these barriers, both to boost the Siemens portfolio and to make the underlying technology available to customers. Siemens is exploring how its factories can use additive manufacturing to augment or replace some traditional methods because it wants to create better products for its customers, reduce production and inventory carrying costs and, where possible, move that production closer to its customers’ locations. Siemens energy business is already using laser sintering to make spare parts for its industrial gas turbine customers, selling this as “up to ten times faster and with full freedom of design possibilities … enabling quick upgrading of existing assets to the latest part design”. Replacement parts that not only replace, fast, but can improve performance — I’d bet customers are willing to pay a premium for that service.

The PLM biz comes into play in many elements of the additive story. If you can produce almost any part shape, optimization becomes a critical part of the innovation process. HEEDS, acquired with CD-adapco earlier this year, can be used to explore design alternatives. NX Nastran’s topology optimization capability can be used for lightweighting or other types of optimization. NX CAE (now a part of Simcenter) can help clarify whether the part can withstand loads and then CAM technology can create the printer instructions. Along the way, one could scan a pre-existing part and import that into CAD for modification (with the new Convergent CAD modeling technology) or to test mating or other aspects within a CAD environment. The result should be better parts, more accurately formed for their ultimate purpose.

The AG sees a business opportunity for its manufacturing plants to capitalize 3D printing; PLM tools make that possible. The AG tries out these tools, making them better for all customers, internal and external. A positive spiral.

Siemens is also working on removing other barriers, such as the size of the parts that can be printed. Typically, parts have to fit into the printer, usually a relatively small box. That means many designs have to be broken into manufacturable parts that are nested to fit the printer. Those are additional steps that can limit the design possibilities and introduce new problems. A Siemens partner, Kuka, is working on putting a 3D printer on the end of a robotic arm, moving the printer around the part to deposit material and, therefore, remove size limitations. Another idea, from the Siemens research labs, is mobile manufacturing, small spider-like robots that can work collaboratively to print complex objects. Think buildings, or an airplane wing. Each spider robot has a buddy, a non-spider that carries the material (right now, only plastics) used for printing. The buddy feeds the material to the spider, which is 3D printing its part of the whole design; other spiders would be working on other parts – and, over time, building up the wing or structure.

Taking 3D printing to the jobsite is a ways off, but one can already see the possibilities. A dangerous location? Send in the spiders — for example, to 3D print a customized well closure and shut down spills like from the Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Boring work, like a cinderblock wall? 3D print it. Exacting work, like the airplane wing? Spiders.

Some call 3D printing the next industrial revolution; I don’t know about that. It certainly has the potential to shake up a lot of long-established processes and players, but it’s still early days for much of the underlying technology. Business models need to adapt, as customers come to value the speed and uniqueness of 3D printed parts over cheaper, inventoried, mass-produced parts. Part quality needs to be high and more consistent. But Siemens is uniquely positioned in that it has a comprehensive suite of design and simulation tools, methods researchers and industrial customers, all under one (very large) roof, to put this all together for true industrial production.

Note: Siemens graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The title image is of Siemens’ NX modeling the Kuka robot and its 3D printer. The black part, which looks tiny here, actually was a foot tall. The image is a screencap from CEO Chuck Grindstaff’s presentation.


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