In 2017, Aalberts Industries generated a turnover of €2.69 billion with 16,000 employees in 22 countries. Among other things, the corporation specializes in heat and surface processing. Here, there is a rising demand with queries and jobs from players belonging to additive manufacturing.
By Rainer Gebhardt, VDMA
In this interview, Daniel Guizard, responsible for Strategic Customer Development in the department Material Technology, explains the significance of the young additive manufacturing technologies for the corporation; he shares where he sees a need for development, and what is still missing in order to achieve a fully automated additive manufacturing.
Could you provide a short introduction to Aalberts Industries?
Daniel Guizard: With pleasure. Jan Aalberts founded the company in 1975. He always reinvested profits. Thus, through organic growth and acquisitions, it became a technology corporation with 16,000 employees at 150 production locations in 22 countries and a turnover of nearly €2.7 billion. Our corporation has many subsidiary companies with globally represented brands, and it is divided into four business areas: installation technology, material technology, climate technology, and industrial technology. Strategic planning tasks are the holding’s reponsibility, where I work with 25 colleagues.
Which part of the value chain do you cover in additive manufacturing (AM)?
Guizard: Our AM activities belong first and foremost to our business department Material Technology, which offers postprocessing for additively manufactured components. This means heat treatment, surface processing, and the so-called hot isostatic pressing (HIP), which is also known as “hipping”. In the HIP process, the components’ residual porosity gets densified, the parameters pressure, time, and temperature being crucial.
How significant is the AM sector for Aalberts as a global technology corporation?
Guizard: Despite all caution regarding predictions – we regard AM as a technology of the future. A new way of manufacturing that already shows its potentials in the areas of implant production or in the consumer sector. We are convinced that additive processes will become industrialized, and that this subject will become more and more relevant to us as well. At Aalberts Industries, about 2 billion parts get coated annually, and about 150,000 tons of steel receive heat treatment. Additive manufacturing is still far away from reaching these dimensions. Still, we take great pains to have a share in the development and in building up knowhow. We want to understand how components react to our postprocessing through surface and heat treatment as well as HIP. After all, they do differ from traditionally manufactured parts in their build-up as well as in their material structures. Apart from this, additive technologies are of interest to our various business areas from a user perspective as well. We already use them for the production of custom-fit plastic parts and prototypes. And of course, we are also considering the technologies for other applications.
As a postprocessing specialist, where do you see a need for development in the AM sector?
Guizard: There are many open questions. Take, for example, coating baths for additively manufactured components: do we only need a different process chemistry and a modified process control, or do we need completely new processes? In this question, we have the advantage of producing our own process chemistry for many technologies. Or take power-led coating processes: how does power for the coating build-up enter into the hollow spaces of AM components? Concerning hipping, we try to find out for different materials, in how far the process influences the components’ dimensional stability, and how the results might be controlled through parameters and compositions. Increasingly, our customers ask questions concerning the postprocessing of AM parts, and we need to find answers. And these answers should apply to the whole, gigantic bunch of postprocessing technologies we offer.
Are there any AM-specific chances and challenges not existing with other technologies?
Guizard: First, a general answer. Current research has shown that postprocessing accounts for 30 to 35 percent of all costs in additive manufacturing. This shows the economical potential, if the market continues to grow dynamically. However, we also see specific chances for new technologies. An example would be our new, patented Lasox technology – a term standing for a laser anodization process. In an oxygen atmosphere, a laser beam is directed onto the surface of the workpiece. Under the influence of the laser, alloy particles begin to melt and evaporate. Oxygen plasma and parts of the molten aluminium react to become aluminium oxide (Korund, AI2O3), which covers the processed surface. The laser beam moves over the surface in long lines. Therefore, the duration of the coating process is proportional to the surface to be coated, or to put it differently: the smaller the surface, the faster the treatment. With this technology, we can selectively coat parts outside of a coating bath. The technology is easily integrated into process chains, it does not bring any additional chemistry into the production process, and it offers the freedom of coating only functional surfaces as needed. Such special-purpose solutions can help our customers of the AM sector to save time and effort.
From your perspective, what is still missing in order to realize fully automated AM process chains?
Guizard: This would first necessitate an analysis on the question of which postprocessing solutions need integration into the process. It is relatively easy to put up a heat treatment oven or a HIP module. Surface treatment is a bit more complex than that. After all, what matters in the design of AM process chains is to take into account coatings, chemicals, or two-component systems with their hardware, storage, safety and environmental regulations. The question of how this might be integrated into additive process chains still needs work and discussion. Today, our processes are optimized for high flow-rates. But it is still unclear whether other criteria might become more important in the AM sector, for example flexibility and system technology.
What were your goals and interests in joining the Additive Manufacturing Association?
Guizard: Christoph Hauck from MBFZ Toolcraft has pointed us towards the Additive Manufacturing Association. We enjoy contributing our technological background to the discussion, and we like to collaborate for solutions and concepts. We also want to enlarge our network, and to learn about the market’s requirements through the exchange with the many other players from all areas of the value chain.