Designers have to rethink

3D printing opens up many new business opportunities for logistics companies. Maike Grund, head of HHLA's new subsidiary Bionic Production, in an interview about the possibilities and limits of additive manufacturing.

The word “Bionic” is not usually associated with 3D printing. Why was it chosen for your company?
Perhaps it’s because many people still don’t really know what 3D printing actually is. This technology spans a lot of methods and materials but we generally use powder with a very, very fine grain of 30 to 40 micrometres. This material is added layer by layer, which is why it is also called additive manufacturing. We build up a component from bottom to top and that’s the link to bionics. The bionic principle means imitating nature, e.g. growth. A tree or flower emerges from the soil and grows upwards.

Are these bionic principles a hindrance or an advantage?
We still have to adhere to the laws of gravity, but bionics can be used, for example, to increase the stiffness of a component. We have constructed a respiratory mask that uses the structure of a banana leaf for the bridge of the nose. The fan structure of a hollow stalk makes the mask much lighter and it doesn’t get distorted so easily. With the help of bionics, models and ideas from nature are implemented during the construction of technical applications.

Because nature is always thrifty, the constructions are probably highly sustainable?
Yes, a plant only needs water, oxygen and nutrients to produce a leaf. But additive manufacturing is primarily thrifty, because nearly all the material is used in the component. There might be a tiny bit of powder left on the product, or perhaps something gets stuck from time to time so it can’t be reused, but this proportion is roughly 5 percent. That’s the difference to subtractive manufacturing, where you start with a block and remove all the superfluous parts. It becomes even more costly if you have to manufacture in several steps, so that individual parts have to be welded  or further assembled. We can build up highly complex structures in a single step and that’s the true advantage, both financially and in terms of quality.

If I think about additive manufacturing right from the start, there are a lot of advantages to it.

Dr Maike Grund, Bionic Production

But the customer doesn’t necessarily see this benefit at first glance?

Lots of companies don’t actually know how they could use bionics or additive manufacturing – but that’s where our Consultants come in! They analyse the product range and processes with the client. There’s not just one process, but many others and new ones are constantly emerging. We check everything on site, such as spare parts, tools, new constructions, size advantages, etc.

Most engineers still think in traditional ways  – which is not a bad thing. Additive Manufacturing is often not included in professional training, not every company is as future oriented as the SCA for example. But if you include additive manufacturing right from the start, you can benefit from all its advantages.

So, additive manufacturing requires rethinking?
Yes, and there are many alternative. We can identify optimization potential, e.g. existing components could be redesigned to become lighter, use less material and make transportation easier. Another option is to integrate additional functions into the component so it becomes more cost-effective overall. I can also increase rigidity by replacing aluminium, for example, by a more expensive metal such as titanium, while using less material and create no cost increase.

You can print titanium?
Yes, that is one of our competitive advantage. Printing titanium is not easy andsome of our competitors are asking us for help. We can print any weldable metals with the aid of our special process methods.

What you have described until now have been general trends in mechanical engineering. Now the world of logistics is also being revolutionised as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Has additive manufacturing also come up with new solutions here?
The restrictions and upheaval caused by the coronavirus crisis show how dependent companies are on a fast-moving and well-oiled supply chain. Particularly when it comes to critical spare parts, disruption to the supply chain may have very far-reaching consequences for manufacturing. With the aid of 3D printing it is possible to avoid such bottlenecks, or at least to bridge the gap. Individual components can be printed from a batch size of just one, but that’s just one of the advantages. Other options could be, for example, integrating functions such as mounts or cooling ducts or designing lightweight components by removing some of the material by integrating hollow spaces and mesh.

If we consider transport flows: can we assume that soon there will be machines all over the world that will be able to print the products themselves so that they no longer need to be shipped overseas?
Well, the powder or wire will still have to be sent to wherever it is needed. Economically, however, it is not feasible to print simple components in large-scale production because printing large quantities isn’t fast enough when you compare it to moulding, for example. And in the majority of cases, products comprise more than one material – and that is a limitation at present. It is with good reason that metal is combined with glass if I want to construct a window, for example. And most machines are much more complex than a window. For that reason, it will remain difficult to print for the time being. Even if it is possible to print lots of individual parts, we won’t be able to escape the reality of machine assembly for a while yet. At Bionic Production, we won’t print lollipops tomorrow, mass-produced cars the next day or complete power stations in the future.

What is 3D printing?

The term “3D printing” describes all processes by which three-dimensional objects are generated layer by layer. This layered construction – which is frequently referred to as “additive manufacturing” – is carried out by a 3D printer based on specified data. Materials used in 3D-printing include plastics, metals and metal alloys.

3D printing is the opposite of conventional machined or subtractive manufacturing processes such as turning and milling. The considerably lower amount of material consumed often makesadditive manufacturing less expensive.

The industrial sector still utilises 3D printing primarily for the manufacture of models, templates or prototypes. In addition, 3D printing is often significantly less expensive and superior to custom-made products than conventional processes.

But new business models will still arise for logistics companies based at relevant hubs within the goods flows?
It absolutely makes sense to print things that are needed quickly, or where the construction needs to be amended later. Such goods can be integrated along their transport route, not necessarily on an ad-hoc basis but in a scheduled way because it simply increases flexibility, or perhaps because certain things can only be 3D printed. Not everything has to be manufactured in China and it might soon be easier to print things locally or at a logistics hub.

So, in the port, perhaps – maybe even at HHLA?
Individual/single parts could be added to the material flow on a scheduled basis. This very idea is on our radar for the long term, in partnership with HHLA, so that we can offer its customers added value. That’s why we are part of the new “logistics” segment. We want to provide parts at short notice, and possibly, we already optimised the design beforehand. However, we need to find the right niche and application where it really makes sense. The machines are still pretty expensive and the materials aren’t cheap either, but that’s where our Consultants come into play. We check which parts can be added to the supply chain and at what point.

Wouldn’t providing remote regions with their own printer be an obvious solution in order to improve their supply chain?
Absolutely! To do this, we want to launch a new product, the Mobile Smart Factory. It can be assembled almost anywhere in one or several containers – depending onwhich parts need to be printed. If there’s no power supply, it can be powered by a diesel motor. You only need an Internet connection, because the factory receives its print orders online. You don’t even need trained specialists with in-depth technical expertise – they just need to enter the data for whatever component needs to be printed. This uploads into the machine and you just press ‘Start’. Then it prints the needed component.

And the components can then be used immediately with no reworking necessary?
The factory not only includes the printer but also everything it needs for reworking. We know that printed components do not necessarily have the desired finished surface structure. Certain interfaces may still need post-processing, so that’s why a milling machine or sandblasting machine is integrated. For this reason, a machine like this could be used in regions where there is limited transport infrastructure.

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