Focal point for AM evolution: Interview with Marc Saunders

Additive manufacturing (AM) has turned prototyping on its head, but if it is to progress beyond the role of a prototyping tool then it will come down to companies like Renishaw to provide the spark.

“Additives is a thrilling arena to be involved with at the moment,” stated Marc Saunders. “It is growing rapidly and is set for some rapid expansion in the next few years.The vision that Renishaw's got really is about establishing it as a mainstream manufacturing technology.”

Saunders has recently rejoined Renishaw, where he ran the UK sales organisation, having just spent three years with E2V, most recently running the space imagining business. The role that has attracted him back to Renishaw is to run the company's new Global Solutions Centres and these are going to play a crucial role in showcasing some of the latest AM technology.

“A lot of the applications thus far have been in rapid prototyping, tooling, direct part replacement, remanufacture type applications,” explained Saunders. “But we see the really big potential of this in the future to be enabling innovative new product designs, made in series production using the technology.That's where we really want to take the technology, and we feel that Renishaw's capabilities across metrology, machining, finishing processes, advanced manufacturing generally, puts us in a good place to be the right partner for designers and manufacturers that are looking to do that.”

The company's technology is being built up around selective laser melting machines which have the capability to make dense, intricate parts out of a range of engineering materials, such as titanium and nickel, that are suitable for demanding applications: oil and gas, medical, F1 and aerospace for example.

Saunders continued: “So that's really what we're trying to bring to the party, is that capability to make high-performance parts for demanding applications, but with the innovative features that additive can bring, such as light-weighting, textured materials, topological optimisation, all those sort of exciting things that we can do in additives that you can't do using conventional techniques.”

Apart from producing dental restorations in quantity, the company is not using AM to manufacture parts in quantity but, according to Saunders, this will come. “In terms of mainstream significant components going into aircraft and cars, there's not a lot of that happening just yet.But we think it can get there, and the steps we're taking around the Solution Centres will enable that and provide a pathway towards that, that production, that option of the technology.”

Companies involved in such activities as medical or aerospace are naturally averse to taking the 'leap of faith' – they need to be convinced that the technology has developed to the point where they can use it productively and reliably, and AM technology is still perceived to be fall short of the mark on these two key factors. Which is where the Global Solution Centres come in.

“What we are looking to do with the Solution Centres is to provide a cost-effective environment in which companies can progressively explore and build their confidence and knowledge of the process towards the point that they can make a justified investment decision to implement a production line with a new product design,” explained Saunders. “We are providing that environment where they can come to a facility where they've got access to machines, access to expertise, access to finishing processes and support around that to help them go from a sort of conceptual stage all the way through to production deployment through a series of steps, which we can support along the way.”

There are 10 Centres planned to be opened over the next year, three of which will be in the UK – in Staffordshire, Glouscestershire and South Wales.

Although Renishaw currently only has one AM on the market (the AM250) to show in these Centres, a new platform – announced as the EVO project in 2014 -is due to be available at the end of this year. It is aimed at the more industrial applications and as such is not a single machine but a platform solution. Saunders explained: “Production isolation is really what we're focusing on – being more productive, but also automation, reduced handling, reduced powder management, manual powder management and so on, so that it's more suited to extended production runs and with less operator intervention than is currently the case.”

Despite the excitement around AM, Saunders also sees a role for the Centres in helping temper expectations. “There's definitely scope for wider education as to the benefits, the freedoms that 3-D printing gives, but also some of the limitations.We don't have complete freedom to design absolutely anything.It has to be makeable.There are a few ground rules that need to be followed, and some know-how in how you can make builds more efficient and higher quality.So there's definitely a lot of scope for education.”

So the Solution Centres are more than just demo areas for Renishaw equipment? “Definitely,” said Saunders. “The question is really about what will AM do for the customer? At the end of the day, it's about them and their products, its not about our machine. Its about what can they do with the freedom that AM gives them to design things differently? How can you implement that in a product design that will make your business more successful? That's got to be the thought process to start with.”