Siemens is a big company, with revenues in excess of 79 billion EUR (83.7b USD) in 2016. As companies go, it’s also pretty old, celebrating 170 years of operations this year. Its interests, across its multiple divisions (technology, energy, medical, industrial automation and software, to name the main ones), reach right around the globe.
My first introduction to Siemens in my early years in the rapid prototyping and manufacturing (RP&M) industry, was as an early adopter of the technology. Back then things were much simpler when categories were clearly defined and not highly populated— there were vendors (hardware, software or materials), service providers (RP bureaus) and users. Siemens was a user. It really was that simple. Now, not so much.
As a user of additive technologies back in the late nineties and early noughties, Siemens was typical in that it originally used rapid prototyping for product development. But it didn’t stay that way for long. Indeed, Siemens was one of a handful of companies that first made additive manufacturing (AM) a viable final production method, notably for the commercial manufacture of its hearing aid products. The use of AM for this production application was a good fit—literally and figuratively—in that the hearing aids were small products, could be tailored to customers’ needs to fit more securely, with improved functionality and perhaps most importantly, offered much higher degrees of comfort for the wearer compared with traditionally manufactured products.
Later in the noughties, Siemens was one of the first companies to blur the traditional demarcation lines by moving into advanced 3D software, acquiring UGS Corporation (formerly EDS PLM Solutions) in 2007. An aggregation of 3D CAD/CAM/CAE and product lifecycle management (PLM) software companies—Unigraphics, Structural Dynamics Research Corporation (SDRC) and Nastran, plus a few other lesser known organizations—it was renamed Siemens PLM Software and operates today as a division of Siemens.
The Siemens PLM Software division remains an active software vendor within the AM ecosystem and serves a vast array of clients across many industrial sectors. The global conglomerate also remains an active user of AM technologies.
More recently, Siemens is engaging with AM to an even greater extent through a series of projects, partnerships and further acquisitions. When considered in combination, it is clear that Siemens is seriously invested in the current and the future potential of AM.
In August of last year, Siemens, via its Power & Gas division, became a committed service provider of metal AM, when it acquired UK-based Materials Solutions, a renowned service company developing high-performance metal parts with AM for aerospace and automotive applications. With hindsight, that was the first strong indicator of Siemens’s overall ‘strategy for digitalization in manufacturing’. Their words, not mine. And, if you take the time to look, the key word is ‘digitalization’—it occurs across all the divisions of Siemens’s website, PR and communications.
The company is also engaging in an increasing number of AM vendor partnerships via the Siemens PLM Software division, notably with HP, Trumpf, Stratasys and EOS.
In May 2016, the Siemens PLM Software division announced that it was collaborating with HP ‘to develop new solutions to transform additive manufacturing (AM) from a prototyping tool to full production utilization’. Then in November last year a similar partnership with Trumpf filtered through, with the aim of ‘industrializ[ing] laser metal fusion technology and mak[ing] the additive manufacturing process for metal parts an integral part of the production process’.
Siemens’s focus is clearly industrial, with these partnerships highlighting the company’s emphasis on developing the manufacturing and production capabilities of AM and providing a common denominator between a number of leading AM original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
November was a busy month for Siemens on the AM front, with a software-related announcement as EOS joined the Siemens PLM software partner program. A relationship between these two already existed—in January 2016, the two companies announced joint research into the production of turbine blades using AM. Some very successful results from that research were released earlier this year and are detailed later in this article.
Still in November 2016, Siemens announced partnership activities with Stratasys. In a move away from metal AM processes, some higher-ups from Siemens joined their opposite numbers from Stratasys at a press conference at Formnext to articulate the importance of this new relationship. The central premise is again about holistic and industrial manufacturing—combining AM (Stratasys) with intelligent automation (Siemens) and advanced robotics will prove to be a game changer. Specifically, Stratasys’ multi-axis Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator now incorporates Siemens’s motion control hardware and PLM software. It likely always did, but they made it formal and laid the foundation for the two companies to fulfill a shared vision.
Away from the hardware system OEMs, Siemens is also prepared to engage with other software companies to fulfil its industrial AM strategy, although arguably, Materialise is much more than that. Much like Siemens, software is just a part of what Materialise does. These companies have been working closely together to explore the integration of Siemens’s PLM software with Materialise’s AM technology knowledge and insight in order ‘to accelerate the adoption of 3D printing for industrial production’. And there it is again, industrial production!
So, what about some actual industrial production applications of AM? A couple of good ones have emerged from Siemens, one internal (R&D) and one external (Asset Management as a Service (AMaaS) for a client). The latter is the result of a partnership between Siemens Middle East and the aircraft parts manufacturer Strata. Siemens is supporting Strata with technological know-how and consulting for the production of monitor shrouds using 3D printing technology, with the express understanding that this is just the beginning. Research is already underway to additively manufacture a metallic outer part for planes. These are just the published goals, so you can bet there is much more in the pipeline.
The internal R&D application, referenced earlier, concerns the production of metal turbine blades. This is not a unique endeavor as turbine blades have long been cited as a potential application for AM technology due to their complex geometries. However, from a functional point of view—enduring high pressure, extreme temperatures and the rotational forces of the turbine’s high-speed operation—they have proved notoriously difficult to qualify in actual production situations. This is where Siemens appears to have made a breakthrough. Earlier this year, Siemens released results showing it has engine tested its new 3D printed gas turbine blades at 13,000 rpm and at temperatures upwards of 1,250˚C.
The novel design of Siemens’s turbine blade incorporates innovative and complex internal cooling channels exhibiting geometry that could not be produced using anything other than AM technology. The expertise of Materials Solutions was brought to bear on the actual production of the parts, using EOS direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) machines, which were later tested at Siemens’s industrial gas turbine factory in Lincoln, UK.
The project spanned an 18-month period, from original component design through material development (a polycrystalline nickel super-alloy powder), to developing new simulation techniques and onto production and testing. In terms of what Siemens is now claiming it can do for time-compression of traditional turbine blade production by utilizing AM, the implications are huge.
Traditionally, the blades for gas turbines are either cast or forged, techniques that require complex mold construction before each blade can be individually cast, which is both time-consuming and very costly. Siemens’s innovative approach with AM reduces the time from the design to production of a new gas turbine blade from two years to two months. A massive difference, with equally massive cost reduction implications.
Unsurprisingly, Willi Meixner, chief executive officer (CEO) of Siemens Power and Gas division, was profuse in his praise for the research team: ‘This is a groundbreaking success for the use of additive manufacturing in the field of power generation, one of the most demanding areas of application for this technology. AM technology changes the way we produce. Using this technology, we can develop prototypes up to 90 percent faster. Siemens is a pioneer in the field of additive manufacturing. We’re speeding up the development of new gas turbines with higher efficiency levels and increased availability and can thus deliver these improvements to our customers faster. The new flexibility in production allows us to more precisely tailor development to our customers’ requirements and deliver individual spare parts on demand.’
I believe there is a lot more to come from Siemens in the next couple of years when it comes to AM technology. Production, digitalization and industrialization are going to be the key words on all fronts—they’re unequivocally central to the strategy. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were a few more acquisitions along the way either—big and small.