The Future of Manufacturing: Revolution in the Making

Siemens researchers are combining bionics and 3D printing with a new software technology that automatically computes geometric solutions. As a result, they are on the verge of a revolution that could transform entire industrial sectors.


by Hubertus Breuer

When Christoph Kiener looks out his office window at Siemens Corporate Technology (CT) in Munich, he sees lawns, paved paths and plane trees swaying in the wind. But to him, it’s all about the trees. “A tree’s branch structure contains a transport system that enables an optimized nutrient cycle. Things are no different in our lungs, blood vessels or plant roots – fluids are always guided and distributed this way,” says Kiener, who explores new design possibilities for many diverse Siemens technologies within CT.


This natural principle has inspired Kiener to develop a design study for burner tips used in power plants and in energy process technologies, which convert solid or liquid fuels or biomass into fuel gases and incinerate them. Kiener didn't come up with this idea by chance. As early as 2014, additive manufacturing was used to create a metal tip that he had developed. The tip’s design made it much easier to cool than its predecessor. As a result, the burner could not overheat even when its maximum temperature of around 1500 degrees Celsius was reached — an unprecedented achievement at the time.

This success has since then prompted Kiener to work on ways to use additive manufacturing in order to combine as many features and assemblies as possible in a single component so that completely new opportunities can be opened up in this field. Kiener’s first sketch of the design study showed branched cooling ducts. This was followed by computer designs that iterated through optimization processes until models were sent to 3D printers. The result: a bucket-size fennel-shaped, plastic burner tip built in layers with interwoven veins.


The burner tip is a good example for bionics – design that makes use of nature’s wealth of solutions, which are the result of millions of years of evolutionary selection. Today, thanks to two new manufacturing technologies, “generative design” and 3D printing, this approach is on the verge of a revolution that could one day transform industries such as automobile and aircraft manufacturing. “At Siemens, we want to make use of these new design possibilities with the help of our product lifecycle management PLM software, because technology developed this way is usually more powerful, cheaper and requires less maintenance,” says Kiener.

Achieving a Lot with Little

Today, new generative computer programs expand the bionics repertoire. Although the digital selection process is not limited to ideas from nature, the longer a generative algorithm calculates, the more organic resulting designs become. This is no surprise, however, because the results usually reflect improved natural processes. Parts produced using this technology are usually strong and are characterized by low material and energy demand, as is the case in nature, which manages to achieve maximum results with very limited resources. In this way, the software perfects a component’s flow behavior, heat transmission, strength, load bearing capacity, and other properties, without requiring an engineer to even pick up a screwdriver. Furthermore, once generative software has calculated a solution, additive manufacturing makes it possible to realize complex designs quickly, saving materials and costs compared to conventional casting and milling. 

Accelerated Evolution

Christoph Kiener’s fennel bulb-shaped burner tip also went through this process. Kiener and his team fed their first sketches into a Siemens Product Lifecycle Management simulation program. “We told the program what conditions had to be met, what we wanted to achieve, and in the end, we received an optimized design,” he says. In this case, the goal was for the burner not to overheat – and so over several days the PLM program calculated hundreds of arrangements for cooling pipes and the guiding plates distributing burning fuels – until a design for optimum flow emerged. “That’s accelerated evolution,” notes Kiener. “Simulations and tests suggest that our design not only serves its purpose, but is also more durable, powerful and affordable than previous models.”


In a similar way, Siemens has also developed products such as gas turbine blades, which are reminiscent of slightly twisted shark fins. The blades have been used in commercial turbines since 2016. The new methodology also shortened the time from design to production of new gas turbine blades from two years to two months.

Multiple Materials in a Single Component

Development does not stop there. In an office next to Kiener’s, bionics expert Tobias Kamps is working on printing processes that integrate several materials in one part. Bionic ideas are also being used here. “An arm consists of bones, tissue, vasculature and skin,” says Kamps. “With additive manufacturing, we will also be able to produce components from several materials in one single piece.” For example, a component adapted by generative algorithms could be formed from expensive, high temperature alloys where it is close to a heat source, while farther away it could consist of more common metals.


Hubertus Breuer

What’s the connection between modeling clay and additively manufactured components? Christoph Kiener provided the answer in his presentation at the opening of the AM Design Lab on June 21, 2018. His design for a burner tip, which looks like a fennel bulb, started out with colorful modeling clay models. As a design expert at Corporate Technology (CT), Kiener will be working on creative design with product developers in the future. He explains: “When I design for additive manufacturing, I have more freedom than with conventional manufacturing. That applies to various additive processes, regardless of whether they use polymers or metal. That’s why we encourage product developers try things out with no preconceptions, to forget about the limits of conventional manufacturing methods for a while, and perhaps try kneading a model before starting the CAD design process.”


Ignore boundaries – realize ideas

The AM Design Lab provides a state-of-the-art space for working creatively and is available to designers, engineers, and product developers from all Siemens Business Units. Kiener comments, “I have many examples of designs of my own, but for the most part we want to work alongside the developers on their own projects.” They can implement their ideas and quickly test applications to ensure they are usable. “To stay at the top in additive manufacturing, we need a lot more specialists,” says Ursus Krüger of Corporate Technology. His department developed the laboratory. “This is where developers learn to simulate manufacturing processes and evaluate the various additive procedures. To help them do this, we provide our in-depth expertise, the appropriate software, and our 3D printer equipment. The lab also functions as a test environment for PLM design software. This is where we work closely with our colleagues from the Digital Factory.”


Idea competition provides a kick-start

At the opening ceremony for the new lab, Siemens CTO Roland Busch also had praise for the winners of the idea contest on Additive Manufacturing. For the Siemens-wide contest, Busch called on employees to look for new business opportunities and applications for additive manufacturing, and the result was 364 new ideas. Busch presented 3D-printed cups to the teams behind the 12 top ideas. What’s more, the three winners now have the opportunity to bring their ideas further along the road toward series production in collaboration with experts from the Design Lab for additive manufacturing. Design Lab Team member Volkmar Lüthen says, “The large number of ideas we received shows the great potential that additive manufacturing offers for Siemens. We’re looking forward to doing an even better job of spreading the skills needed for this technology throughout the company – with a focus on creativity.”

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