How 3D Printing Is Helping Fine-Tune German Industry
Companies like Munich's EOS are breaking new ground in the manufacturing world. And rather than kill industry jobs, their technology-driven approach may actually be saving them.
MUNICH — Eos was the goddess of dawn in ancient Athens. The rosy-fingered beauty in a saffron-yellow robe had an ability that set her apart from all the other titans in Greek mythology: She would hurry on ahead of the Sun — Helios — the giver of all life.
Hers is also the name of a German company, EOS, founded in Munich in 1989, although in this case, the word isn't drawn from mythology. It's an acronym, short for Electro Optical Systems, a term that describes laser systems. Still, the Bavarian tech company shares an important trait with its ancient namesake: It too wants to always be ahead, the harbinger of a sunny future.
EOS is very much on the cutting edge in Germany. But it's not a job killer. Nor does it weaken country as a production power. EOS is evidence, rather, of the benefits of digitalization in manufacturing: a massive increase in productivity and flexibility. As a result, production in Germany remains competitive despite high wages. In many cases, it even outperforms foreign production.
In-house logistics and supplies are no longer necessary.
EOS achieves this with special machinery for the so-called additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. The Bavarian company focuses on the production of metal parts that are not milled, turned or sawn from a blank as usual, but rather welded together layer by layer, so to speak, by using metal powder in a process called laser sintering. The process is controlled by computers fed with enormous amounts of design and production data.
The savings and benefits for the customer are astonishing, as shown by the example of the injector head of a rocket engine for the European launch vehicle Ariane 6. Since 3D printing makes it possible to manufacture in shapes that would not be possible with conventional methods — or only with unjustifiably high effort — the use of materials is greatly reduced.
In this case, instead of manufacturing and assembling 248 individual parts, additive manufacturing allows the injector head to be produced from a single mold. As a result, in-house logistics and supplies are no longer necessary, the share of labor costs drops, and with it the impact of Germany's high wages compared with that in developing countries.
EOS and its 3D printers, furthermore, is just one star in an entire emerging universe. And in Germany, another company — Oerlikon — is positioning itself right at its center. The Swiss mechanical engineering group is planning to lay, in Germany, the foundations for the broad application of 3D printing in metal processing. To this end, the Swiss company is investing 30 million euros in Munich.
With the expansion on the banks of the river Isar, Oerlikon has committed itself to a Herculean task, namely the large-scale industrialization and spread of 3D printing of metal parts. The basis for this is the development of new metal powders suitable for additive manufacturing.
Oerlikon is already the European leader in this field and the company is creating new jobs in Germany with its investments in Munich. The long-term goal, however, is to become a one-stop supplier of 3D printing technologies in metal processing in Germany. To this end, Oerlikon is developing new construction methods that are nature-oriented. This allows the production of complicated components that are lighter but also more stable than conventional parts.
Germany offers the know-how. A year-and-a-half ago, Oerlikon took over Citim, a company of 100 employees based in Magdeburg. The East Germans are specialists in the use of 3D printing machines for metal materials and are regarded as the world leader in this sector behind the U.S. company Morris, which was taken over some four years ago by General Electric.
Made to order
The experiences of Oerlikon and EOS have so far shown that, with the help of additive manufacturing, it is possible to produce in a short amount of time components that are exactly tailored to the customer's wishes, available to the customer in the shortest possible time, and made domestically, rather than in a low-wage country.
Additive manufacturing is thus becoming a key technology of digitalization.
For the local metal processing industry — in Europe's strongest economy and in the center of the Old Continent — this offers enormous potential for improving competitiveness and even bringing production back to Germany. The increasing individualization of demand and the acceleration of business through online platforms indeed benefits those who can deliver promptly because they produce quickly and locally.
Additive manufacturing is thus becoming a key technology of digitalization and, with its gigantic treasure trove of design drawings and production programs, it opens up previously unimagined possibilities for companies to produce in the country. For example, German car manufacturers could stop keeping spare parts for mostly older vehicles in stock or laboriously reproducing them. Instead they could use 3D printing to make the pieces on a case-by-base basis.
The German sporting goods company Adidas recently caused a sensation when it opened its so-called Speedfactory in the Bavarian city of Ansbach, creating 160 new jobs. There, as well as in another new factory in the U.S., the three-stripe company is planning to produce individual sports shoes in small runs of 500,000 pairs per year using a 3D printing process.
With the innovative drive made in Bavaria, Adidas will only serve a niche. But let's wait and see. The trend towards individualization through digitalization, and thus towards producing close to where your customers are, is already spreading throughout the entire industry. Rather than fear these tech-driven shifts, people should have every reason to feel optimistic.