Additive Manufacturing – BMBF Project ProLMD

BMBF-funded project “ProLMD”: Hybrid-additive production of large components with Laser Material Deposition

October 2020

The chemistry was just right in “Engineering Valley”

Until now, many people did not believe that robots could be used in additive manufacturing (AM). “ProLMD,” a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), proves exactly the opposite: In this project, new hybrid processes were developed in teamwork, processes that combine conventional manufacturing methods with laser material deposition (LMD) and three robots to form a new manufacturing approach. The recipe for success is explained by four experts from the BMBF, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, KUKA Industries and the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT.

Robot system with LMD head and integrated laser line scanner, realized in the BMBF-funded project ProLMD: Scanning of the additive manufactured repair volume on the component. Thanks to the use of a fiber-guided system, the KUKA robot can operate with nearly no restrictions and can also manufacture complex geometrical shapes.
© Fraunhofer ILT, Aachen / Ralf Baumgarten.
Robot system with LMD head and integrated laser line scanner, realized in the BMBF-funded project ProLMD: Scanning of the additive manufactured repair volume on the component. Thanks to the use of a fiber-guided system, the KUKA robot can operate with nearly no restrictions and can also manufacture complex geometrical shapes.
Adjusting the component in the protective gas cell of the ProLMD-System at project partner KUKA in Würselen/Germany.
© Fraunhofer ILT, Aachen / Ralf Baumgarten.
Adjusting the component in the protective gas cell of the ProLMD-System at project partner KUKA in Würselen/Germany.
Up close: Nozzle of the Fraunhofer ILT for Laser Material Deposition in the protective gas cell of the ProLMD system at project partner KUKA in Würselen/Germany.
© Fraunhofer ILT, Aachen / Ralf Baumgarten.
Up close: Nozzle of the Fraunhofer ILT for Laser Material Deposition in the protective gas cell of the ProLMD system at project partner KUKA in Würselen/Germany.

Dr. Helmut Bossy is a consultant and deputy head of department 521 “Future of Work and Value Creation; Industry 4.0” in the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, BMBF, Bonn.

Dr. Bossy, what was particularly striking about ProLMD?

From the very beginning, the project was distinguished by the fact that all project partners approached the research work in a highly motivated and well-coordinated manner. On the basis of the work carried out at Fraunhofer ILT together with the user companies, the partners quickly achieved initial success in the laser material deposition of small structures on large-area components. I found it innovative that two approaches were merged here: powder and wire deposition. Another positive aspect is the hybrid approach, which combines the advantages of other conventional manufacturing processes, such as machining or primary and secondary forming, with this additive technology.

And what was the reason for the financial support, thanks to which a total of three plants were built?

Dr. Bossy: First of all, the group of experts who advised us on which projects to select classified this project as highly innovative and recommended it for funding. Moreover, the scientific findings on additive production will only be applied in practice if the processes researched and developed work reliably under industrial conditions. In order to achieve this both step by step and within a reasonable period of time, three demonstrators were required. Fraunhofer ILT was able to deepen its scientific understanding of the processes and make the necessary improvements to the powder and wire heads of the existing plant technology. A further system was required to link the various plant components, such as robot welding in a controlled atmosphere and non-contact measurement technology for quality assurance – all of which were carried out under industrial conditions. The experience the partners gained with both systems was then used to incorporate the findings into a further system design at Fraunhofer ILT. This system is specially tailored to the needs of medium-sized companies, for example in terms of availability and easy handling of the rather complex processes of additive manufacturing.

Günter Neumann is head of KUKA Business Unit Laser Applications at KUKA Industries GmbH & Co. KG, Würselen.

Mr. Neumann, your Lasertec business unit of the KUKA site in Würselen took over the project management and cell integration of the robot within the BMBF project ProLMD. What motivated you to participate?

Neumann: When Kuka took over Reis Robotics in 2015, it also took over Reis Lasertec in Würselen, near Fraunhofer ILT in Aachen, to further expand the good contacts already existing at that time. That is why we have such an affinity for these kinds of projects. We see additive manufacturing as a target market for which we are trying to set a standard with our robot technology. There are already highly specialized machine tools for this purpose, tools that are now coming onto the market. But we wanted to make the whole thing less expensive and develop a standardized robot cell. We will never achieve the precision of a tooling machine, but this precision is not needed everywhere.

But many people did not believe that robots could be used in the field of additive manufacturing?

Neumann: Thanks to ProLMD we have now proven that the robot is capable of implementing additive laser manufacturing after all. This is a very important point that has now emerged from the project.

With additional financial support from the BMBF, Fraunhofer ILT has also developed a less expensive version of the ProLMD robot system for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Does this mean that additive manufacturing with the robot is also suitable for the small job shop?

Neumann: Yes, exactly. It was of course a fortunate circumstance that the BMBF approached us to find out whether we could already build something for small- and medium-sized companies. For them, a solution was created that can be used in principle in the same way as in a high-tech system. In Würselen, we have a plant with a complete box in which we can build highly sensitive parts in an inert gas atmosphere. But you don’t always have to have that; for this purpose we have reduced our core components to performing the essential functions. Now we can say: “Hello medium-sized companies, even our basic version of the cell can be an economical solution for numerous applications.”

Professor Johannes Henrich Schleifenbaum is holder of the chair “Digital Additive Production DAP” at RWTH Aachen University.

Professor Schleifenbaum, how do you generally assess the importance of metallic 3D printing in view of the many areas in which Fraunhofer ILT is active?

Prof. Schleifenbaum: Fraunhofer ILT already has outstanding significance here in Aachen. For example, it was the first institute in Germany to deal completely and comprehensively with the topics of digitalization, AM and 3D printing. This has developed into a growing community that also thinks about the topic from a design perspective.

What role did the BMBF project ProLMD play in the large number of AM projects?

Prof. Schleifenbaum: The LMD process is well known in coating applications, but a relatively new technology in the field of AM with promising potential with many advantages because we only supply material locally, which results in much larger components. Additive manufacturing is normally done layer by layer and, therefore, only slowly. Compared to the classic casting or forming process, it is usually quite costly. It is a giant step that the process can now produce quickly and cost-effectively. It can also be seamlessly integrated into existing process chains.

Does the project contribute to thinking more in process chains?

Prof. Schleifenbaum: I think this is a very important point. Added value is created along the interfaces of domains. We now cover the entire process chain and define the interfaces along the maturity levels of the processes. This is the only way to create a genuinely functional process chain that can also be used in industry, which is a truly unique situation. It is almost like squaring the circle – that we are now making this technology completely available to industry in such a project.

Opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises: With additional financial support from the BMBF, Fraunhofer ILT has also developed a less expensive version of the ProLMD robot system for the hybrid-additive manufacturing by LMD, adapted to their needs.
© Fraunhofer ILT, Aachen / Ralf Baumgarten.
Opportunity for small- and medium-sized enterprises: With additional financial support from the BMBF, Fraunhofer ILT has also developed a less expensive version of the ProLMD robot system for the hybrid-additive manufacturing by LMD, adapted to their needs.
System for Laser Material Deposition with robot support and protective gas cell for aerospace applications, at ProLMD project partner KUKA in Würselen/Germany.
© Fraunhofer ILT, Aachen / Ralf Baumgarten.
System for Laser Material Deposition with robot support and protective gas cell for aerospace applications, at ProLMD project partner KUKA in Würselen/Germany.
Contact Fraunhofer ILT:
Jan Bremer M.Sc.
jan.bremer@ilt.fraunhofer.de
+ 49 241 8906 356

A proverb says that "too many cooks spoil the broth". Now, with eight partners, a great many chefs were involved here. What was the recipe for success?

Neumann: We all already had a lot of experience in working together in large research projects. It was a good fit that all the partners had the same professional attitude and that they all had equal rights.

Dr. Bossy: We see collaborative industrial research more as an orchestra, one in which all the instruments and players are filled correctly and one that coordinates them well. Transferred to ProLMD, this means that the right composition of the consortium and a coherent research plan make the project a success. What provided the consortium with the right mix for its forward-looking project work was having Fraunhofer ILT as a research partner, various companies along the value-added chain from automation, laser and measurement technology, and users from the automotive, aerospace and aeronautics sectors. KUKA Industries from Würselen, as project coordinator and later system provider, played a major role in the targeted research work.

Dipl.-Ing. Stefan Scherr is the project representative and responsible for the subject area “Additive Manufacturing - ProMat_3D” at the Project Management Agency Karlsruhe (PTKA), Production, Services and Work at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Eggenstein-Leopoldshafen.

Mr. Scherr, how do you see it as project supervisor?

Scherr: The cooperation was very good. The project was supported by very experienced, innovative companies and research participants along the value-added chain.

What should one pay attention to in this form of technical teamwork?

Neumann: The chemistry between the people must be right. And I believe that this would have quickly become apparent if someone “didn't play along.” I think this is a very important aspect of a research project.

When you look back, what surprised you most?

Neumann: We collaborated very well together; each could rely on the technological project results of the other. We now have something to show for it, which has not just remained theory. We have also built up an additional solution at Fraunhofer ILT, which is also an interesting alternative for medium-sized companies.

After this project, how do you see Germany's chance to maintain or even expand its leading position in the field of metallic 3D printing?

Prof. Schleifenbaum: I believe that we are indeed doing well in Germany, but we are also facing massive competition. With projects like ProLMD, we can always give our competition individual pinpricks that are very well placed and also very painful for them.

Dr. Bossy: We have a good research landscape and project funding. Now it‘s a matter of sticking with it.

Scherr: It is important to maintain our leading position. For example, as a positive development, I see the material deposition of difficult-to-process materials such as special types of steel, nickel-based alloys or titanium. The companies are now getting more and more sure-footed and can bring their respective product and production portfolios closer to additive technologies on a broad scale. And there was a good start not only with the ProLMD project, but also with the other twelve projects in the ProMat_3D topic area.

Professor Schleifenbaum, did the spirit of Aachen also play a role in the success of the project? 

Prof. Schleifenbaum: I like to direct my gaze away from Fraunhofer ILT and towards RWTH Aachen University, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year under the motto “Learning. Researching. Making.” There is a lot in this very striking slogan: We are all networked here and have already well understood that we are only strong together and that this networking is one of our essential points. And if you combine that with an attitude of making things happen, you have a good springboard. You still have to jump obviously, but it is a good springboard.

What role does the campus play in this; does the spirit of Stanford and Silicon Valley resonate here?

Prof. Schleifenbaum: We make similar things possible here by offering space, land and research infrastructure, thus attracting companies to us. On the campus alone, there are now more than 400 matriculated companies that develop, research and shape the future together with us. Together with our partners, we form a European “Engineering Valley.”

What are the next steps for Kuka? What would be the ideal result?

Neumann: I hope that we can use the findings to put together a package for customers in which the features are “ready to use.” That is actually still rare. Entrepreneurs can put a lot together, but it is still difficult for them to buy everything from one source. In close cooperation with institutes such a thing succeeds. And to implement this for the industry and use it here – that must be the goal!

So the companies are looking for general suppliers for additive manufacturing?

Neumann: That is true. In the ProLMD project we are now showing that all functions can be combined with a machine in such a way that they can be operated without any problems: The user only needs a basic knowledge of materials handling and technical requirements, especially in additive laser manufacturing. But everything must fit together. Our goal is, among other things, to offer an all-round carefree package, a standard cell for medium-sized companies.

Dr. Bossy, what is the next step?

Dr. Bossy: The BMBF also wants to support projects to introduce methods of artificial intelligence into production and disseminate them further. We are currently analyzing and evaluating the drafts received for this. We also invited the additive manufacturing community to submit proposals. I see artificial intelligence as a good approach to making planning and production processes more stable and controllable.

The interview was conducted by Nikolaus Fecht on behalf of Fraunhofer ILT.

Images BMBF project “ProLMD”

Federal Ministry of Education and Research - BMBF

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – KIT

KUKA Industries Würselen

Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT