Materials Solutions in Worcester, UK, has been part of Siemens since 2016. It’s a young company that specializes in the additive manufacturing of gas turbine, airplane turbine and motor sport components made of high-performance materials.
By Bernd Müller
An agile startup speedboat or a steady industrial-group tanker? The question of which format can hasten the breakthrough of new technologies more effectively is a controversial one. But sometimes both formats fit together perfectly – as has been the case with Materials Solutions and Siemens. Back in the 1990s, Siemens was already looking into additive manufacturing (AM) when the technology was better known as rapid prototyping. By contrast, Materials Solutions entered the field in 2006, as the additive manufacturing process for metals was just taking off. Founded by Carl Brancher, Materials Solutions started out by leasing space from the University of Birmingham before moving to Worcester, UK, and specializing in additive manufacturing using high-performance metals. Siemens acquired Material Solutions in 2016, but the company’s founder still holds 15 percent of its shares.
Going it Alone or Partnering
Long before deciding to go ahead with this acquisition, Siemens had been exploring the additive manufacturing market. It was clear that AM would become tremendously important for Siemens in the future. However, it was unclear how exactly Siemens could gain the necessary know-how – on its own within the company, through development partnerships with institutions such as the Fraunhofer Society, or by working with an established industry partner. Because this topic was rapidly growing in importance, Siemens chose the third and quickest option. It conducted initial talks with Materials Solutions in 2013, and in 2014 the two companies formed a partnership to develop a process and component for a gas turbine burner. The partnership turned out to be successful. By then the British company’s special knack for dealing with sophisticated materials had become common knowledge all over the world. “There was concern that a competitor would acquire Materials Solutions, so we acted fast,” says Phil Hatherley, who worked at Siemens back then and today is the General Manager of “Materials Solutions – a Siemens business,” which is the company’s official name.
Welding a Partnership
How can a large company and a small company be brought together without the supposedly weaker partner being at a disadvantage? This question was artfully answered by Phil Hatherley. A British engineer, he started his professional career in 2007 at Siemens in Berlin, where he was responsible for strategic procurement of key components within Siemens for large gas turbines. Later he also worked in the USA. After the acquisition of Materials Solutions, he was transferred to Worcester, initially as the company’s Integration Manager. He adapted Materials Solutions’ finances and procurement processes to Siemens’ requirements, looking after the two companies’ uniform public profile and working to ensure that Materials Solutions would not be overwhelmed by its huge new owner. Since his appointment as General Manager in 2017, he has led the company together with founder Carl Brancher, who has continued to develop and grow the business.
Materials Solutions manufactures burners and blades for Siemens gas turbines and also supplies products ordered by external companies, such as those in the aerospace industry. Motor sports is another exciting industry for which parts are made in Worcester – indeed, no other company offers such a wide range of applications for high-performance metals.
The 17 3D printers the company now operates use lasers to print patterns into fine metal powder, which melts within fractions of a second and welds itself to the solidified layer beneath it. Each layer is thinner than a human hair, meaning that printing large components can require several days.
Energy sector, aerospace industry or motor sports, no other company offers such a wide range of applications for high-performance metals.
Additive manufacturing offers companies enormous freedom in terms of design – freedom that traditional methods such as casting followed by post-processing in a machine tool cannot offer. But in order to make good use of this freedom, companies need a great deal of know-how. Materials Solutions offers a true end-to-end service that ranges from consulting and materials expertise to additive manufacturing of parts, post-processing, qualification and certification – combined with Siemens´ know-how in digital processes. Only a a handful of companies combine this know-how under one roof.
Siemens and other customers who are already established in additive manufacturing generally have very precise requirements, and they have already considered what can and cannot be achieved with this technology. On the other hand, external customers with little experience in additive manufacturing can sometimes come to the company with hand-drawn sketches, asking, “Could you print this for us?”
Comprehensive Process Know-How
One of Materials Solutions’ core areas of expertise is materials know-how. For example, nickel-based supersteels are also available in powder form today. However, metals that have to withstand temperatures far beyond 1,000°C in a gas turbine are very difficult to melt and weld with a laser process. As a result, before a 3D printer can begin to operate, engineers need to work out a complex laser strategy that shows in which sequence and with how much power the lasers must heat up the powder. Moreover, even if planning has been extremely precise, severe stresses can build up within complex components during the build process. But here too, Materials Solutions’ experts have an answer: Stresses can be relieved by heating in a vacuum furnace. Engineers also require detailed process know-how to ensure that cracks do not form in a material even after years of use. Even though Materials Solutions works with high-performance materials, “We don’t produce the powders ourselves,” says Hatherley. Instead, the company works together with powder manufacturers to develop suitable materials.
Although Materials Solutions’ motto is “If you can dream it, we can print it,” some geometries still cannot be additively manufactured – even supposedly simple bodies such as a hollow sphere. But Materials Solutions is constantly exploring new paths designed to create more and more previously impossible parts with additive manufacturing.
May 08, 2019
Bernd Müller is an independent journalist.
Subscribe to our Newsletter
Stay up to date at all times: everything you need to know about electrification, automation, and digitalization.