“Those who wait will miss the boat!”
Mirko Meboldt, a professor of product development and engineering design at ETH Zurich, is an internationally recognized expert on additive manufacturing. In this article he describes the opportunities this evolving technology is bringing to industry.
by Hubertus Breuer
When did you encounter additive manufacturing for the first time?
Mirko Meboldt: In 2003, when I was developing a water filtering system at the start of my work on my doctorate. We needed a cartridge system, which is normally made by means of injection molding. We printed the filter – with a fine thread that immediately fit. I was thrilled.
People say that additive manufacturing will set off a revolution in industrial production. How would you assess its potential?
Meboldt: The special thing about this technology is that you can switch back and forth almost seamlessly between the virtual world and the real one and make things without using any tools. For over 20 years, additive manufacturing in the form of “rapid prototyping” has been an indispensable part of product development. Today this technology enables completely digitized manufacturing routes that end in series-produced products, which can be realized only through 3D printing. The industrial success of additive manufacturing ultimately depends on the usefulness of these products rather than on the technology itself.
Can you give us a few examples?
Meboldt: Of course. Additive manufacturing is already being used in applications where these advantages provide a clear competitive edge. For example, it has become established in the area of dental implants. The Tailored Fits company produces customized ski boots – a process that wouldn’t be possible without 3D printing. The startup company Vectoflow produces flow probes for test rigs. These flow probes are smaller and more robust than sensors assembled from several parts. Today you can find examples like these everywhere. And the application areas are constantly growing wherever additive manufacturing enables a quick or more cost-effective production process and innovative high-performance products.
"These new possibilities also enable us to save massive amounts of time and money in development and production."
Some companies still complain that in many cases this technology is not yet capable of manufacturing products that are ready for mass production.
Meboldt: Consider precision casting, which was being practiced in ancient Egypt. By comparison, our experience with 3D printing has been extremely short. Nonetheless, the results of 3D printing are already very impressive. In other words, the fact that 3D printing has not yet reached certain milestones is not an argument against it. Besides, it’s constantly being improved. In addition, if I successfully use 3D printing in series production, I can’t simply copy existing components. The design process and the value chain have to be rethought from scratch. But if you’ve made the effort, this process opens up hitherto undreamed-of possibilities. And these new possibilities are not only in the fields of design and functionality. They also enable us to save massive amounts of time and money in development and production.
To what extent does Siemens fulfill the preconditions for the industrialization of additive manufacturing?
Meboldt: Siemens has all the skills that a driver of additive manufacturing must have – and today it’s already demonstrating the benefits this process brings. In this area, Siemens is combining three important elements: process control, software, and application areas such as gas turbines, for which it’s already printing components such as gas turbine blades. Of course, you have to make sure that flexible decision-making processes are possible in spite of the company’s enormous size.
Will tomorrow’s designs be inspired by bionic models?
Meboldt: Milling, turning, and molding processes intrinsically have geometric limits. By contrast, additive manufacturing gives me free rein as a designer. And if I’m free to design a component structure, it’s no surprise if the result functions organically. After all, nature is the undisputed master when it comes to optimally using materials.
How significant is the co-creation process among companies, research institutes, and universities?
Meboldt: Without cooperation the process chain would break down – and that also applies to a big fish like Siemens. Different partners provide the material, the printer, and the software. However, if it’s a question of completely rethinking the design process and the value chain, universities and research institutes are unbeatable. Their strong point is not the further optimization of existing processes. Instead, they’re good at exploring what kinds of new things you can do with a technology and finding out where the limits of the possible lie.
"We shouldn’t underestimate additive manufacturing. If companies wait for the market to become gigantic, they will miss the boat."
Data security is a major concern for additive manufacturing. What’s your perspective on this issue?
Meboldt: I think this issue is overestimated. For one thing, it’s not a new issue. If I have a milling machine and a milling dataset, I can produce a component. But for 3D printing, the task of mastering the process is far more complex. That fact in itself protects powerfully against product piracy. Besides, 3D printing is only one step in a process chain. For example, after the production process has been completed you have to rework every metal component.
What do you think additive manufacturing will look like in the years ahead?
Meboldt: Normally, nobody is interested in how a thing is produced. With 3D printing it’s different, because here we have a technology that is being introduced simultaneously in the children’s room and at the level of company management. As a result, this technology is being extremely overrated. The day will never come when all the components that are produced today by means of molding, milling and injection molding are additively manufactured instead. But that isn’t our goal. Instead, 3D printing is a new production process that makes completely new innovative solutions possible in the process chain, in design, and in the area of materials. That’s why we shouldn’t underestimate additive manufacturing either. If companies wait for the market to become gigantic, they will miss the boat.
After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, Mirko Meboldt began his industrial career at the Hilti tool manufacturing company in Liechtenstein.
Since 2012 he has been at ETH, where he is now focusing on the development of new manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, biomedical applications, and innovative products.
He is a co-author of the book Entwicklung und Konstruktion für die Additive Fertigung (Development and Design for Additive Manufacturing), which was published in the spring of 2018.
Interview conducted by Hubertus Breuer
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