Disruptive’s features editor, Rachel Park, sat down with German original equipment manufacturer OR LASER to understand more about the company’s strategy in the additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing industry. Both Uri Resnik, chief executive officer, and Ludovico Camarda, vice president of business development, have been instrumental in the research, development and launch of a new direct metal AM machine—the ORLAS CREATOR—that made its debut at Formnext, at the end of last year, to considerable acclaim.
Founded back in 1997, O.R. Lasertechnologie GmbH (OR LASER) has, from the very beginning, developed new and innovative industrial laser technologies and equipment. The company has successfully progressed application development across a wide range of sectors including automotive, aerospace, mechanical engineering, electrical, medical, plastics, and tool- and mold-making, for organizations such as Siemens, Bosch, Geberit, Freudenberg and General Electric (GE).
It was from this solid foundation that Uri Resnik started to explore the direct powder bed AM process, generically known as selective laser melting (SLM). Identifying an opportunity for making this process more directly accessible to smaller and medium sized firms, Uri put together a team that came up with the ORLAS CREATOR.
Disruptive: OR LASER’s history with developing and manufacturing industrial laser equipment is extensive, but when did you first become aware of direct additive technologies and when did you fully grasp the potential of these technologies with metal?
Ludovico Camarda (LC): When we started this company, we were providing welding equipment for mold manufacturing and repair. This has been the biggest part of our business over the last 19+ years. At some point, about eight years ago, we realized the potential of direct metal deposition for enabling our customers to fully automate the welding process. The aim then was to offer additional value, making their work more efficient through a fully-automated process, and allowing them to generate more profit by consistently reducing the time for repair.
Uri Resnik (UR): Actually, in one respect, you could say that we were working with additive manufacturing technology from the first day we started OR LASER in 1997. At this time, though, it was ‘additive manufacturing’ with metal wire and it was a fully manual process. In 2002, we started working with the Fraunhofer Institute on powder cladding technology, and today this is generally accepted as a part of the additive manufacturing family. As Ludovico says though, about eight years ago, the focus moved towards automating the process.
From there, the evolution of the whole process became more organic. We further developed our laser sources, the mechanical systems and our proprietary CAD system to further automate and improve the process.
Going into SLM was just one more step in our evolution. Our R&D in this area has allowed us to master the metallurgy, the hardware and the software platform and now we want to make this technology more widely available—specifically for customers that do not have the capital resources for the large commercial SLM machines currently on the market. This has always been our main motivation!
Disruptive: Building on your existing portfolio—which includes the additive laser welding equipment—is a natural progression, but what prompted the R&D into direct metal AM and when? What changed in the industry?
LC: As I mentioned above, direct metal deposition was our first natural step into additive manufacturing. We put substantial efforts into developing our own solution based on an innovative powder nozzle and our own CAD/CAM system. We brought it to market and at the same time, we had to educate existing and potential customers on the benefit that such technology would provide to their daily job. Today, our direct metal deposition (DMD) technology is a consolidated part of OR LASER business.
UR: AM is a progressive learning curve within OR Laser. We took the laser know-how we have from the DMD process and combined this with our understanding of beam deflection from scanning technology we are using within our laser marking and engraving process/equipment as well as enhancing our 3D CAD/CAM capabilities with new features needed for the powder bed technology. Combining all of this with a newly designed mechanical system took three years of work by our in-house R&D team. We knew that many of the major patents were going to expire around 2015/16, and that this would open the market for new players and machine concepts.
Disruptive: Metal AM is an increasingly crowded market space with well-established players, so what makes OR LASER—and more specifically the ORLAS CREATOR—stand out?
LC: Talking about selective laser melting (SLM—aka powder bed fusion), we have been watching very closely how the market for such technology has evolved in the last several years. We appreciated very much the work done by the big players in the industry in creating market awareness and in defining technology and processes. However, we also realized that a large number of small and medium sized businesses were far removed from the technology, without a viable option available to them to fulfil their needs. These simple facts led us to the design and development of the ORLAS CREATOR, which today is the only commercially available SLM machine below 100,000 EUR on the market, yet still capable of out-performing more expensive systems.
UR: I personally think that today the additive manufacturing industry is comparable with the automotive industry in 1929. Then, as now with AM, you had pioneers in the industry which prepared the ground and acceptance of the technology, but they moved towards higher volumes and more complex systems which were well out of the reach of small to medium sized businesses.
Apart from the price, which Ludovico highlighted, the ORLAS CREATOR is simply the first working (rather than conceptual) direct metal SLM system on the market that can produce dense metal parts with a simple approach and minimum space required. With our proprietary circular coater concept, we can demonstrate build speeds that are 30 percent faster than machines with the same build platform but that also have a footprint that is twice as big as the ORLAS CREATOR. Also, we believe that running our graphical user interface on a Microsoft Surface tablet is a paradigm shift within this domain. This makes it mobile, accessible from wherever you are and easy to use.
Disruptive: Why is making metal AM more accessible so important in your opinion?
LC: First, there is the huge market potential of small and medium businesses where OR LASER is currently playing alone. For us, this is a unique opportunity to capitalize our efforts. Second, and this is the most important reason, is that enabling a larger number of creative entrepreneurs to access this technology will contribute to the exponential growth of applications and expertise, as well as increasing the global knowledge in material processing and ultimately of the technology itself. This is, in fact, a paradigm shift and a fundamental pillar of our belief and motivation.
UR: I would just add that miniaturization and individualization plays a significant role in further industrial as well as medical developments. We are giving more R&D teams a new tool to design more intelligent parts that weigh less, consist of less assembly parts and do a better job. Individual prostheses are becoming more important for our society and with the ORLAS CREATOR we are able to set up agile production farms which will deliver the right products, in the right volumes, at the right time.
Disruptive: How does the ORLAS CREATOR do that?
LC: With a price tag below 100,000 EUR, the ORLAS CREATOR is absolutely the most affordable SLM machine for metal AM on the market. It is open and offers the user full flexibility in choosing powder and process parameters.
UR: Exactly, there is nothing easier. Every industry is using 3D design tools in its daily workflow. Take a goldsmith for his latest jewelry designs, an orthodontist who reengineers your teeth or a mechanical designer. They will all likely be working with a digital 3D model of what they need. By adding the CREATOR to their workflow, they can simply load any 3D file to the CREATOR controller and print their required metal part with a minimum of post processing.
Disruptive: What has the response been like to the ORLAS CREATOR since its launch at Formnext?
LC: The ORLAS CREATOR has had an incredible market response. We had about 40 pre-orders during the Formnext event alone and a comparable number of distributor requests from around the world. We have also had recognition from many of the biggest players in the industry, including direct competitors, who have congratulated us on the innovative concept and the results achieved. Furthermore, our web analytics bumped up substantially after Formnext and there was an increase in direct enquiries and job applications. All of this goes well beyond what we could have foreseen or expected.
UR: Ludovico has covered it all. I would just add that I am very proud of our team at OR LASER.
Disruptive: As far as you can tell us, what does 2017 hold for OR LASER?
UR: 2017 is going to be another busy year. We are very excited to have our US launch at the Rapid show this year, followed by introducing the ORLAS CREATOR to the Japanese market at the DMS show. We are also working together with some powder manufacturers on qualifying their powders for the ORLAS CREATOR.
So, we will have a lot to do in order to fulfil our goals this year, and still there are some new innovations on the road map for the ORLAS CREATOR.
LC: We are working hard to deliver the first batch of ORLAS CREATORs by the end of Q2 of this year as promised and fulfil all pre-orders in the second half of 2017. At the same time, we are gearing up production to be able to ramp up sales exponentially on a global scale. Stay tuned—you are going to hear a lot more from OR LASER in 2017.