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Q&A. Additive Manufacturing Thinks Big, Aims High

Q&A. Additive Manufacturing Thinks Big, Aims High

More and more companies are investing in technology capable of 3D printing large parts. One, Germany’s BigRep, aims to shake up the market with its affordable printer capable of producing large objects. Interview with CEO Rene Gurka.

DirectIndustry e-magazine: How did you come up with a machine that can 3D print at large dimensions?

Rene Gurka: When we entered the market in 2014, we noticed there was a lot of prototyping of small things. But nobody really dared to go large scale. Only one competitor had a printer for large pieces, but it cost $750 000. We didn’t think it fair that only a very limited customer base could afford such a huge printer. Our idea was to shake up large-scale printing by bringing out a very reliable, affordable machine.

DI e-mag: How much does it cost?

R.G.: Our main printer is 50,000 euros. It can do 80% of what the big machines do. It prints one object for $100 to $200, compared to $1000 to $2000 for the big machines.

DI e-mag: Which sectors are you targeting?

R.G.: At first, we worked mainly with artists, designers and architects. For example, we created an eight-meter chicken skeleton with Berlin artist Andreas Greiner. Before, making a tall object required printing at least 150 parts. With our technology, you can print it in just a couple of parts.

DI e-mag: Is the industrial sector interested in your printer?

R.G.: We have interest from the transportation sector. For example, we’re working with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to print railway parts. We now can print complete automobile seats. We’re working with Audi on a prototype project called Concept Breathe. We redesigned a traditional car seat as a function of topological optimization and bionic design. Additive manufacturing enables us to create new designs and print parts with the same quality and properties as traditional designs, but using less material.

DI e-mag: What kind of materials does your printer use?

R.G.: We try to use materials that are environmentally friendly. We’re using a biodegradable milk- and corn-based PLA material. But the disadvantage is that it’s not strong enough for some clients. They demand that we use more engineering materials. We’ve been working on a new generation of equipment with a heating chamber suitable for industrial materials. We’re working on using not only plastics in our printers, but also metal-infused materials. We may soon be able to melt metal filaments and extrude them to make an object.

DI e-mag: How will additive manufacturing evolve over the next five years?

R.G.: Until now, it’s been mostly prototyping. But more and more companies expect AM to help them in everyday production. The industry must move from prototyping to end-user objects, like spare parts. For example, Deutsche Bahn is using our machines to print spare parts for their trains.

In addition, additive manufacturing machines are pretty stupid today—there isn’t much communication between printers. The next five years should see a lot of digitization in AM. And the whole Industry 4.0 concept will also be incorporated. Smarter machines will be able to change materials on the fly. For example, simple materials in the morning, complicated materials in the afternoon.

DI e-mag: Speed remains one of the biggest challenges. How will you handle that?

R.G.: When printing large objects, some prints take nearly five days. For prototyping, speed isn’t an issue. But for series production of cheaper parts, it is. We’re working on it.

DI e-mag: Can you tell us more about your Sushi project?

R.G.: We’re working on the next generation of AM for continuous industrial printing. It’s called the Sushi project in reference to the constant product circulation in sushi restaurants. We envision continuously printing multiple objects moving through a single machine, the finished products exiting at the end.