Catalysts of winning 3D technology
University research and teaching are central to the development of forward-looking technologies such as 3D printing. More than 20 recognised private and state universities and 36 in the metropolitan region mean Hamburg is well placed in this respect. In 2001, Professor Dr.-Ing. Claus Emmelmann, Head of the Institute of Laser and System Technologies (ILAS) at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg (TUHH), was appointed to transfer rapid prototyping from plastic to metal parts, among others. (The term 3D printing did not exist in the early 2000s.)
"At the time, working with metal powder was a new strategic orientation and we were pioneers to a certain extent," Emmelmann recalls. At first, the quality of the metal components was unsatisfactory, but that changed gradually. "Our goal was to develop the technology further and transfer it to industry simultaneously." Initial successes occurred in the field of endoprosthetics such as titanium hips or cups, also due to the bionisation of the functional components. Scientists take their cue from nature - in this case human bone structure - and modelled it thereby revealing one of 3D printing's great strengths. Unlike the conventional, i.e. subtractive, machining process, additive manufacturing facilitates the construction of lightweight yet stable hollow bodies. "The endoprostheses, which are manufactured in a superficially porous manner similar to 'spongiosa', are extremely precise in their fit, grow in faster thereby accelerating the healing process and reducing the length of hospital stay," Emmelmann noted.
"Components from the 3D printer are up to 80 per cent lighter than conventional products and of greater interest for aircraft construction," said Emmelmann. Together with Airbus and Concept Laser, the professor and his team have developed a titanium cabin holder as part of the award-winning "3D Printing in Civil Aircraft Construction - a Manufacturing Revolution Takes Off" research project. Inspired by bird bone structure and produced with bionic 3D printing, the team saved almost 50 per cent of the three-dimensional, highly stressable metal component's weight. As a result, the innovation ranked among the top three in the 2015 German Future Prize. The coveted German President's Prize for Technology and Innovation is awarded for forward-looking ideas developed to market maturity.
Research as a location factor
"The importance of the prize is immense and has shone the spotlight on Hamburg, which in turn has sparked interest and commitment on the part of politics and industry," Emmelmann stressed. In 2009, for instance, the LZN Laser Zentrum Nord GmbH was founded as a spin-off of ILAS and became part of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in 2018 as the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Additive Production Technologies (IAPT) - one of the world's leading institutions in 3D printing research.
Training skilled workers is essential for developing the technology. Apart from research activities, the ILAS also focuses on training engineers and vocational school teachers in the field of metal technology. "3D printing is a digital and interdisciplinary technology and is part of many courses offered by the TUHH. "The enthusiastic students try out 3D printing in the university's FabLab," said Emmelmann. The opportunity to experiment is important. "It's not simply about manufacturing an existing product in a new way, but about a fundamental rethink. Which products could not be manufactured before or only with great effort? What new possibilities does the technology open up? Such thinking is an important prerequisite for the next digitally oriented industrial revolution."
From university to start-up
While the first step calls for a rethink, turning new ideas into viable business models is often far more difficult. TUHH lends support to its graduates entrepreneurial aspirations through facilities such as TUTECH Innovation GmbH or the TUHH Startup Dock. And quite successfully, Emmelmann stressed, and named three start-ups in the field of 3D printing. "The am-power GmbH & Co. KG specialises in market research while Bionic Production GmbH aims to bring 3D printing to industrial series production and has been taken over by HHLA. A third startup is being founded at present. Its business model is based on a smart digital application with "3D-Spark" software that identifies components that are more suitable for 3D printing rather than conventional production."
For more information, read the other parts in this series: