Sandvik Group has only been getting serious with the metal additive manufacturing (AM) process directly since 2014. Today, the group has a facility with six AM machines and 10 people at its Sandviken, Sweden headquarters. Located within the Sandvik Group’s Materials Technology area, the operation is, in fact, part of cutting tool activity Sandvik Coromant (www.sandvik.coromant.com/uk).

But this does not mean the group is an AM novice. Sandvik Materials Technology’s Sandvik Osprey company (based in Wales), a global brand in the powder metallurgy world, has 10 years’ experience in the AM industry, delivering powder for use in the process. It can deliver product suitable for all AM techniques, taking in material types such as: austenitic stainless steels and duplex steels; cobalt alloys; low alloy steels; nickel alloys; and tool steels (including maraging steels), so the group is far from without a foothold in this fast developing area.

Explains operations manager, additive manufacturing, Mikael Schuisky, who heads up the group’s additive manufacturing centre: “The decision to set up an AM facility was first discussed in about 2013, during a capital markets day [investor meeting], but I took on this position two years ago, in mid-April 2014, and set about building this centre up from then. At that time, I had no employees and no machines, so the first things were to find a site, decide what technologies we should acquire and also to invest in people.”

As it happens, the facility saw its official inauguration just one week prior to Machinery’s interview with him, undertaken during MACH 2016 (11-15 April), with the first AM machine arriving in autumn 2014 and the full complement of six not in place until the end of last year.

A MIX OF TECHNOLOGIES

Today, the centre boasts three powder bed AM technologies across its six machines: two laser fusion machines from Concept Laser (ES Technology, 01865 821818); one electron beam powder fusion machine from Arcam (01926 491300); and three jet binding units from ExOne (www.exone.com). The latter technology is typically employed to build up sand casting moulds by bonding sand using glue, but at Sandvik Coromant it is being used to bind metal powder, followed by curing to produce a ‘green’ body that can be sintered, just as is the case for carbide tool tip production, of course. Says Schuisky: “All three technologies have different possibilities within Sandvik, which is why we have invested in these.”

While the centre has 10 personnel, the facility manager says this group is part of a “big R&D community”, so it draws on resources as required, just as external R&D activities can make use of the facility. “People come from other sites, different business areas, for, say, a week and work on a project,” he adds.

Sweden has no centre of AM excellence, so the Sandvik Coromant facility looks to be the beginnings of one. It is already working with nearby Uppsala university, which has been granted money to study parts made from super-alloys via AM, while it additionally cooperates with Sweden’s Royal Institute, based in Stockholm. Sandvik Coromant itself is also a member of the Manufacturing Technology Centre academia-industry bridge operation in Coventry, which also has an AM activity. Says Schuisky: “We are a member of other sites as well, but as we are kind of new, I am focusing on building up the structure of what we want here and then we can see how this complements other activities.”

As to the specific prompt that sparked the decision to set up the facility, he offers: “We saw within the whole Sandvik Group that there were a lot of activities concerning additive processes – within the mining area, the materials technology area – so we thought it was a good thing to get all the competence in one centre and see what we can do.”

He suggests that the group has an advantage, too. “Sandvik is in kind of a unique position, because we have our atomisation plants, we have powder production, AM processes, post-process heat treatment, machining; and we make advanced products [that can use AM-produced parts]. We have applications [for AM technology] within Sandvik Coromant, so we see that we can use this type of technology to improve our product. We decided to concentrate our efforts to learn what these technologies can do for Sandvik, for our different business areas, using the material we already have in house.” This own material design and manufacturing capability is considered a major advantage in all of this, in fact.

“We have the whole spectrum – from the raw material, the metallurgy that we can design; learning about these additive manufacturing processes and how to use them for our purposes in the best way, then looking at future products with improved functionality and delivering better customer value,” he underlines.

The centre is currently developing process and application knowledge, as well as new products. On the material side, Schuisky says that it is about finding the process window/sweet spot that delivers best speed and material properties. On the design side, it is about learning about associated software and understanding the new concepts or functionalities that can be added to existing products, and then how best to build parts, employing lattice structures or internal cooling, which open up new functionality possibilities.

Asked what the first target products are, Schuisky responds that there aren’t any released and the centre is a research operation not a production unit, anyway, although admits its machines could handle some production. He talks more generally about the centre’s approach, though: “We want to use our smaller machine to develop processes, using our materials that we are interested in, finding ‘process windows’ or sweet spots for their use, then scale this up in the larger machines to produce design concepts and prototypes to see how we can really improve our products. There are items in the line that are coming out, but I cannot say any more about that now – we have not released anything yet.”

CUTTING TOOLS A TARGET

But Schuisky earlier alluded to cutting tool applications within Sandvik Coromant and its website amplifies this, saying that the company has “the dual aim of using it [AM] in the future production of its cutting tools, as well as servicing customers who need help to machine components made with the new [AM] technology”. But parts within the group’s rock drills or other mining equipment could just as easily employ AM in their production.

Looking for further clues in recent annual reports only reveals that the Sandvik Group sees the area of AM as a key focus, however. The group’s 2014 report stated that within the powder metallurgy area AM is “a prioritised area”, with Pasi Kangas, vice president and head of R&D at Sandvik Materials Technology, adding: “Through 3D printing, we are taking powder technology and our material know-how into the next exciting phase.” The 2015 annual report says no more, except to reiterate that AM is a priority area for research and development.

As to when any product might appear, Schuisky says “it will come soon”, but will not be drawn as to whether that means this year or next. “It will be sooner than I envisaged when I started, is what I can say. Things are moving fast in AM. If you have good ideas and market size, you can really use these machines for good products, but you have to see the benefit of using AM; obtain a functionality or something that you cannot achieve with any other technique, then you really can find that sweet spot that can give you a good product.”

First published in Machinery, June 2016