French tire company Michelin has been a long term user of additive technologies, first bringing the technology in-house in 2007. Towards the end of last year the company announced a partnership with Fives — another French company and one with a robust reputation for equipment manufacturing and serial production — and promising a new solution for the additive manufacturing industry.
Last week at Formnext the two companies, through a joint 50:50 partnership provided much greater visibility on what they are up to. I caught up with a couple of people to find out more. There were representatives from Fives, Michelin and the new independent company — AddUp — that has been formed as a result of the partnership. Initially I was looking for the history and the context for the company.
The best insight into these angles came from Jean-Luc Laval, Deputy Group Marketing Director at Fives. The background information that he provided for me was not wholly unique, in that when Michelin first brought metal additive manufacturing (AM) platforms in-house, they didn’t fully meet the company’s needs. That is not an unfamiliar story, but how the company went about resolving the issues is!
At this point, it’s important to understand that the Michelin application of additive metal is a notoriously tricky one — tire moulds. The complexity and accuracy requirements for this application are very demanding, but these are two areas where additive manufacturing excels, right? Well, yes, but in 2007, results with metal AM still fell a long way short of what Michelin needed to achieve. As a result, the company literally took the platforms apart and redeveloped and rebuilt them to meet its specific needs. The proprietary machines have been running at Michelin facilities in France and the US for the production of unique tire moulds for some years now and Michelin claims it is the use of its modified additive platforms that allow it to offer customers superior tires in terms of safety and performance.
Coincidentally, with the new AddUp venture, the aim is to bring superior metal additive manufacturing platforms to market that offer improved performance and safety features. While application development has been super-charged in the last few years by virtually all the big vendors of additive manufacturing and 3D printing platforms, there are cases, such as this, where the user company takes the reigns and uses its resources, expertise and understanding to challenge the status quo. The evolution from a user into a vendor is more unusual though, but that is what has happened here.
After speaking with Laval, I was later able to get some face time with Bruno Bernard, the CEO of AddUp. He confirmed the independent status of the new venture, of which Michelin and Fives are the parent companies, in equal measure. At present, AddUp employs 50 people working across a wide scope of disciplines for the development and commercialization of the FormUp range of additive manufacturing platforms.
The first commercial offering, launched at Formnext 2016, is the FormUp350. Operating a powder bed laser melting process, Bernard explained that what sets this platform apart is “industrial robustness,” courtesy of its reliability (low failure rate), quality, ease of use and safety features.
Bernard puts this down to the way that the FormUp350 machine has been designed and stressed: “Our story is not the same as our competitors.” Essentially implying that Michelin’s expertise has been built in to the machine, along with very detailed mechanical and operational solutions. On the low failure rate, Bernard went on to explain that for optimum productivity the machine has to work for as long as possible without failure. That’s kind of a given, but also one of the areas where AM can disappoint. Thus he went on to claim outright: “our efficiency rate is 75%. I am fully confident this is the minimum we can offer.”
To be fair, not many vendors out there will go on the record with specific figures like this — which suggests confidence in the process and the results. And, to be clear, this figure includes complete operations, including cleaning, powder handling etc. Moreover, Michelin is currently running these machines at scale for its tire mould application and reporting great productivity, efficiency and economic returns (not to mention their market share in the tire market). As case studies go, it’s a good one.
Health and safety is also a major focus for the FormUp. Bernard stressed numerous times that through the design of the platform, minimal human risk is built in at every level. HSE is also the drive behind the AddUp Flex Care System — a flexible solution that offers transportable plug & play HSE units that include everything required for safe production operations.
On the specifications, as the name indicates it’s got a cubic build volume of 350 x 350 x 350 mm, a space that can be heated up to 500˚C. AddUp stresses it is materials agnostic, running an open materials policy. This kind of fits with the company’s evolution. Currently the FormUp350 can process steel alloys, Ti and Al as well as Inconel. Copper alloys will reportedly follow in time. The build rate is stated to be 35cm cubed per hour. On pricing, as usual, there was hesitation, but the start price will be around €750k. It’s right up there!
It was interesting to learn that AddUp already has several orders on the books for the FormUp350. Obviously Bernard wouldn’t name names, but he did go so far as to say two of the companies were in France and another was in Europe but outside of France. All are due to ship in Q1 2017.
I find myself really intrigued by this new addition to the additive manufacturing industry. On the surface, it maybe doesn’t look that different to the other newcomers offering metal laser melting processes looking for market share, and it could struggle to compete with established incumbents in the sector. That said, what sets this new company apart is the history of its parent companies — if that application expertise is truly built into the platform, you can’t put a price on that!