Concept Laser has helped shape "additive manufacturing" for 15 years
Lichtenfels, 17.08.2015: Concept Laser, the pioneer of LaserCUSING and laser melting with metals, is turning 15. The start-up, founded in 2000, has developed rapidly over 15 years. Once an exotic outsider, additive manufacturing methods using 3D metal printing have taken over a wide variety of industrial fields during those 15 years. "The tide," says Frank Herzog, founder and CEO & President of Concept Laser "has turned: Until very recently, additive manufacturing was the domain of prototypes. Now we're seeing certain sectors enter massive industrial adaptation, while the aerospace industry is experiencing a complete paradigm shift."
The 15th anniversary of the foundation of Concept Laser coincides with a period of strong market growth. It is not for nothing that additive manufacturing is one of the catchwords of industry 4.0, where value creation is focused on automation and digital process and supplier chains.
Technological expertise put to the test
Fifteen years of Concept Laser means fifteen years of successful process development. Concept Laser has its own research and development department with more than 50 employees. In addition, the company is partner of numerous research and development co-operations with universities, technical-scientific institutions and industrial companies.
Moreover Concept Laser is owner of more than 50 granted patents. At present, the company owns approx. 100 pending patent applications. The majority of the patent applications will be granted in the near future. The number of inventions applied for patents by the company has been steadily growing. One key strategic technology area for Concept Laser is in-situ process monitoring, and it is one that the machine manufacturer is expanding from 2016 to include the QMmeltpool 3D for three-dimensional real-time monitoring. In the context of the company's development activities, validation, further development of methods and materials certification are some of the key issues in Lichtenfels.
Beginnings often have a certain magic about them – milestones in the development phase
The existing plastic sintering technology led to development of the LaserCUSING method in 1998. As far as Frank Herzog was concerned, what worked for plastics must also work with metals. Stresses in the component and the failure of the metal powder to fuse completely were the major hurdles to begin with. This was remedied in part by Herzog's development of what is known as stochastic exposure, for which he filed a patent one year later. This process involves stochastic control of the slice segments (also referred to as "islands"), which are processed successively. The patented process significantly reduces tension during the manufacture of very large components. The second milestone was the use of a solid-state laser, which completely fused the component to a tenth of a millimeter, thereby ensuring dense components. This initial vision became a reality in the year 2000 when Kerstin and Frank Herzog founded Concept Laser GmbH. In 2001, the company presented its M3 linear prototype to the public at the Euromold in Frankfurt, Germany. From 2002, Concept Laser delivered the world's first 3D metal printing systems. At this time, Oliver Edelmann joined the management team. He later went on to become a partner, building up professional sales and marketing structures, a portfolio that he manages to this day. In 2002, Concept Laser also developed the hybrid construction method combining machining and additive manufacturing in a single component. This makes it possible to produce tool inserts and other parts cost-effectively: "simple" contours are machined in a conventional way while complex parts of the component are printed. In 2005, the company began developing parallel and surface cooling.
Milestones in the market expansion phase
By 2004, it was time for the machine manufacturer to try something new: processing reactive materials, such as titanium or aluminum. This expansion in materials in 2007 was based on the new M2 cusing model, a system in the mid-sized build envelope segment (250x250x280mm3), which to this day is one of the company's classic bestsellers The first QM system for monitoring the build process came out in 2009. In 2010, Concept Laser presented QMmeltpool, a quality module that can monitor the surface area and intensity of the melt pool. The same year, the Mlab cusing model was launched. This model provided a smaller build volume (50x50, 70x70, 90x90, z=80mm3). The Mlab cusing is used to manufacture watch components, jewelry or dental prostheses. This beginner's model altered the business model for dental laboratories, for example, and played an important part in switching over from manual production to automated mass production in a print center. It was followed in 2011 by QMcoating for monitoring and controlling the coating process. From this year on, the annual sales growth was already between 30 and 50 percent. In summary, we can see that the intensive research and development work at Concept Laser GmbH leads to a new innovation approximately every three years.
Milestones in the company's current expansion phase
In the meantime, in 2012, Concept Laser achieved a major success: it presented what was then the world's largest laser melting machine (630x400x500mm3), developed with and for Daimler AG. This made it possible to significantly increase build rates using the then-standard 400W lasers. The key component in the X line 1000R is a high-performance laser in the kilowatt range that makes it possible to increase productivity by a factor of as much as 10 compared to other commercially available laser melting systems. The X line 1000R also features a rotating mechanism for alternating use of two build modules, enabling continuous production in parallel operation without downtime. Tooling and detooling can take place in the second build module on the opposite side of the machine in parallel to the build process. The X line 1000R is primarily used in the automotive and aerospace sectors. From this time, the large machines segment became the company's number 1 driver of growth, a position that it holds to this day. As a result, the company grew by an above-average 75% in 2014. That same year, the company began equipping machines with the multilaser technology, specifically 2x200W, 2x400W in the new M2 cusing, or 2x1,000W. This latter combination resulted in the X line 2000R, a system that combines the world's largest build space (800x400x500mm3) with the strongest laser output (2x1,000W). In 2015, Concept Laser also premiered 3D mapping in real time. QMmeltpool 3D will be available from 2016 – an important step in improving quality. But increasing productivity is also an important aspect of current development projects, so we can expect to find four laser sources in a single machine in the foreseeable future.
Today, more than 400 laser melting systems from Concept Laser are in operation around the world. At the end of 2014, there were 259 systems in use in Europe, 62 in the Americas, 76 in Asia and 4 in Africa and Australia. If we look at machine sales in recent years, Concept Laser is without a doubt one of the world's leading companies when it comes to the powder bed-based laser melting method.
With the growing importance of the American market, in addition to Europe, Concept Laser founded a subsidiary in Grapevine, Texas, USA, in 2014, which now counts more than 10 employees.
Interview with Frank Herzog (CEO & President of Concept Laser)
Editorial team: How do you feel after 15 years of Concept Laser, Mr. Herzog?
Frank Herzog: It's been a very, very exciting time. We have far exceeded a lot of what we were expecting. Back in 2000, who would have thought that 3D metal printing would be such a massive hit? Even I'm amazed.
Editorial team: Which factors do you think are especially important?
Frank Herzog: Technological development, the improved quality of components and, of course, the differences to classic methods when it comes to economic and technological options. However, adaptation to the market varies greatly ...
Editorial team: Please explain that ...
Frank Herzog: There are industries, such as dental technology, where we are seeing very different developments: some people are inventing new business models, such as a digital print center for additive dental prostheses. Others are waiting to see what happens. This is probably down to the strongly regulated prices that we see in our healthcare system. In the aerospace industry, things are moving rapidly towards additive manufacturing. In the USA and, for example, with Airbus over here, I would say that we're witnessing a paradigm shift. There is no way back. The automotive sector is also fully immersed in the adaptation phase because build envelopes and rates have reached the acceptable range. However, I think there is still a lot of need to catch up in the German mid-sized sector, on the user side, in particular.
Editorial team: You mean with SMEs?
Frank Herzog: In principle, I'm talking about SMEs, but also some major German industrial companies. For example, there was a study from the Institute for Innovation and Technology as part of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy program "Autonomics for Industry 4.0": according to this study, investment in industry 4.0 will provide return on investment within 6 years for SMEs. This is a fantastic figure for ROI. The study calculated the growth potential as 153.5 billion euros in Germany in the next 5 years. These are very positive signals: What is the German SME sector doing? Mostly, they are waiting and watching. SMEs are very hesitant because the investment costs are considered high. This applies to Europe and Germany. In the US, people are much further on and more open. In my opinion, we're going through an ambivalent phase in which innovators are making strong inroads but many market participants are at the moment just watching and waiting to see what happens.
Editorial team: But that could also change quickly ...
Frank Herzog: Yes. Personally, I'm assuming that Industry 4.0 will break a lot of fresh ground, because this is where the important factors for growth, value creation and competitive advantage can be found.
Editorial team: How would you describe the particular strengths of Concept Laser?
Frank Herzog: Concept Laser has a strongly technological approach. For us, the key is research and development. At present, more than 50 employees are working in this area to retain our position as a technological leader in the field of laser melting with metals. Innovation is the most important driver. Another fact that has helped us a lot is that we always try to understand our customers' applications. That way, we have always tried to optimize our systems for specific applications. Users often tell us that the open parameter configuration that we have always favored is a great help in adapting processes to specific materials or component geometries.
Editorial team: That's a purely technical answer. What would you say about the company as a whole?
Frank Herzog: The Concept Laser company represents the conservative values of the German small and medium-sized sector. In other words, it is characterized by pragmatism, long-term action and a sense of responsibility towards jobs and employees. Our employees are loyal to the company and their colleagues and, in turn, the company is loyal to its employees. This is why we are technology-driven, not capital-driven, because we aren't tied to any trading prices. At the same time, we aren't driven to extreme risks. This means that we can retain our equity ratio and expand it in order to concentrate our forces entirely on development. Basically, we put all our money into the product.
Editorial team: How will AM develop in the future?
Frank Herzog: We expect strong growth. Gartner's Hype analysts are predicting that in 2018, 50% of market participants will be involved in AM. In general, each additive solution offers three potentials: a lightweight construction potential, a functional potential and a production potential. People are now becoming aware of this, of course. Design engineering is also changing. AM has reached the adaptation phase: In the past, purchasers placed a conventional component on the table and asked what it would cost to have it produced using the laser melting process. This approach, however, fails to exploit the inherent advantages of the process. Today design engineers are adopting a more systematic approach. They define performance parameters and we then develop solutions that take full advantage of what the additive process has to offer. But we have to rethink many areas, not just design engineering.
Editorial team: Rethink? In what way?
Frank Herzog: Let's look at aircraft construction, for example. AM has enormous potential for bionic lightweight construction. The sector is currently examining all parts minutely and critically and is open to the idea of trimming them to AM, depending on results. The next generation of parts will be significantly lighter but with better performance characteristics. They will, of course, also be more cost-effective and environmentally sound to manufacture. Today, aircraft parts that in the past consisted of more than 100 individual parts can be produced in a single step. Retrofitting, production on demand or local manufacturing – and all at the same documentation level, anywhere in the world – are all further unique advantages of the method. There are three more special opportunities in aircraft construction: AM not only improves the cost structure, it can also reduce inspection times for aircraft. Another particularly attractive aspect is spare parts logistics. Here, we are looking at a genuine revolution: Why should spare metal parts be manufactured by specific tools and then kept in stock? I think they will be printed out locally using AM when needed. This would save a lot of time and money.
Editorial team: Is market acceptance of AM continuing to grow?
Frank Herzog: Yes – and to be more specific: it's growing strongly. The key factors here are the increased build rates and the improvements in quality. These are very important in the automotive and aerospace industries. But we are also seeing high-precision providers moving towards AM now.
Editorial team: Could you name an example?
Frank Herzog: Yes. Mapal in Ahlen, Germany, a hidden champion when it comes to precision drilling. Dr. Kress, the owner, has taken a very close look at what can be developed conventionally and what would be possible using additive methods. As an innovator, he was very quick to realize the opportunities of a hybrid construction method.
Editorial team: What was the result?
Frank Herzog: So far, two new product lines, but that's probably just the beginning.
The first product example is the QTD cutting insert drill for diameters lower than 13 mm. The tool shank of the hybrid component is manufactured using conventional processes, and the drill is built additively. The drill bits feature a 100% higher coolant flow. This improvement is implemented firstly by special, spiral coolant channels designed specifically for the process, instead of right-angled bores, and secondly by non-circular coolant channel profiles. That allowed the company to expand its range with smaller cutting insert drill bits.
Editor: And the second product example?
Frank Herzog: For me, it was almost even more exciting. I'm talking about additively manufactured external reamers. The lighter the external reamers are, the better they work. This is particularly true for machining small-diameter shafts. The weight and the resulting mass inertia severely restrict the maximum step speeds. Lightweight construction also provided the solution here: the new, additively manufactured external reamers have a specially developed rib structure on the inside. They are significantly lighter and fitted with a balancing profile. This achieves almost perfect concentricity in the rotary tools. The speed reduction for an external reamer with a diameter of 8.5 mm amounts to about 57%. Machining is faster and precision is greater.
Editorial team: Let me ask you a general question. What do you think of Germany as a manufacturing location?
Frank Herzog: Germany is positioned well. If we look at research and the provider side, we are very well positioned. Of 9 system providers around the world, 5 of them come from Germany. According to Roland Berger, these service about 70% of the global market, while the four foreign providers manage just 30%. However, we have to monitor events over the medium term. Most providers are technologically positioned, not capital-driven. They are medium-sized companies that have to refinance their R&D efforts from earnings. Let me state it frankly: the question is what happens if a major player decides to get on board.
Editorial team: What can be done to maintain or strengthen the advantage here in Germany?
Frank Herzog: Determinant factors in Germany in the future will be further R&D developments at universities and in industry. I'm talking about laser sources, software and topology. Funding programs from the German government and the EU can also help. After all, in the USA, Obama's government is showing how to enter the field in a targeted way with the three strategic development fields AM, composite and environmental technology. Another aspect is adaptation of the process in education, that is, in universities and in the occupational profile "additive manufacturing process mechanic," which has yet to be created. Another factor is, as I mentioned before, industry's willingness to invest and the resultant impact on the provider industry. A lot will depend on the speed of innovation, too. I'm talking here about system technology: laser output, build envelopes, build rates etc.
Editorial team: After the double laser, is the multiple laser the next technological step?
Frank Herzog: They already exist. There are people who favor them: that is, using four or eight lasers. The idea sounds logical at first. But I also see limits to how reasonable this is. The more lasers are used, the more data has to be transferred, and increased complexity can reinforce the disturbance variables. After all, we have to protect ourselves against the risk of over-engineering, which can get out of hand from an economical or technical perspective. That said, we can expect a further leap in innovation in the next five to ten years.
Editorial team: Let's take a look forwards. How do you see things progressing?
Frank Herzog: The boundaries with conventional methods are fluid and constantly moving. What's right today could look very different tomorrow. We have to keep an eye on how things look in a different light. In terms of build rates, economically viable batch sizes and volume pricing, we will be experiencing massive changes. Just looking at build rates, Roland Berger predicts that these will increase by 800% between 2013 and 2023. Or take the price per volume of a component: a volume price of 3.14/cm³ euros today should be reduced by almost a third, to 1.10/cm³ by 2023, again according to Roland Berger. These are very dynamic developments that will play into the hands of AM. On the materials side, we will probably also see numerous new developments, as we have done with aluminum in recent years. There is plenty of room for creative approaches here. One important point arises from the method approach itself: the individual solutions, such as those we can see in patient-specific implants, will change medical technology. In future, it will be possible to adapt cranial, hip or vertebral implants very precisely to the patient's circumstances. This will mean a better quality of life for many of us. What is clear today, is that whenever a digital, additively manufactured component would be better, more efficient, available sooner, lighter and/or cheaper, then the additive manufacturing option is the right solution.
Editorial team: Thank you for the in-depth conversation.
Table 1: Concept Laser milestones over 15 years
2000 Foundation of Concept Laser GmbH
2001 Presentation of the first M3 linear prototype for LaserCUSING® at Euromold 2001
2002 Delivery of the world's first 3D metal printing systems begins
2002 Development of the hybrid construction method (combining machining and additive production in one part)
2005 Development of parallel and surface cooling
2007 Launch of M2 cusing for processing reactive materials
2009 The first QM system for monitoring the construction process
2010 QMmeltpool is presented
2010 Launch of the Mlab cusing "small series"
2011 QMcoating for monitoring and controlling the coating process
2011 Annual growth is now between 30 and 50 percent
2012 Market launch of the X line 1000R in the 1,000W laser category with
the world's largest build envelope at the time
2014 Introduction of multi-laser technology in the form of the new M2 cusing (2x200W, 2x400W)
2014 Foundation of a subsidiary in Grapevine, Texas (USA)
2015 Premiere of 3D mapping in real time with QMmeltpool 3D
2015 Market launch of the X line 2000R, a system that combines the world's largest build envelope (800x400x500mm3) with the strongest laser output (2x1,000W)
Concept Laser today:
Annual turnover 2014: approx. 44 million EUR
About 130 employees, of whom more than 50 in the R&D unit
Sustained sales growth of 30% – 50% per anno since 2011
Sales growth of more than 75% in 2014
Concept Laser Inc., Dallas (USA)
At the end of 2014, there were 259 systems in use in Europe, 62 in the Americas, 76 in Asia and 4 in Africa and Australia.