Optimise your 3D Printing production process with Air Liquide: focus on the Benelux market, an early market for additive manufacturing

“We are helping customers optimise their production process in a cost-efficient way”
Manufacturing & Process
19 May 2018

Air Liquide supplies gases, services and solutions for SLS, DLMS (SLM) and EBM printing to customers active in the aircraft industry, the automotive sector, dentistry and surgery.

“Air Liquide supplies high-quality gases and materials to its 3D printing customers in the Benelux, but we offer much more than that,” says Wim Velghe, additive manufacturing expert. “Our most important added value lies in the fact that we actively cooperate with our customers and try to optimise their production process wherever possible.”

“We may be a supplier, but in practice we try to act as a kind of partner. The market clearly appreciates our approach. We’ve succeeded in capturing a market share of more than 60% in the Benelux in a relatively short period. Our customers include top companies such as Materialise, VIVES, Blok Group, MX3D, CADskills, Anyshape, SIRRIS and NLRNLR.”

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Air Liquide supplies nitrogen to companies that use SLS printing. The nitrogen –which helps prevent ignition of the printed materials– is supplied in gaseous or liquid form depending on the usage profile of the customer. “We can also provide a Nitrocraft nitrogen generator that meets all safety requirements and can be equipped with a buffer that can be placed outside. In any case, we fit an oxygen detection meter inside the unit. If there is a leak anywhere in the nitrogen circuit, the oxygen meter will immediately note the drop in oxygen content and sound the alarm.”

One major disadvantage of SLS printing is that it takes up to 24 hours for the printed parts to sufficiently cool down to enable further processing. However, Air Liquide’s R&D department is developing a new technique that will allow the pieces to be cooled considerably faster without affecting its metallurgical structure. In this way, the length of time between order and delivery can be greatly reduced, a critical added value in all print-on-demand applications.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DLMS)

DLMS printing, also known as SLM, uses metal powder and a laser to melt the powder, so that the piece to be printed is built up layer by layer. Air Liquide supplies the argon and/or nitrogen for the DLMS printer, which prevents oxidation and ignition. We are also developing a solution to store metal powder in an inert atmosphere so that it remains free of oxygen and moisture contamination.

How to optimise the production process

“Additive manufacturing is a relatively recent development that is evolving at a remarkably rapid pace. It is essential that companies involved in 3D printing choose the right partners that have the knowledge and capability to optimise the production process and help solve any problems. That is precisely how we work with our customers.

We ensure that the gas installation is attuned to the customer’s workflow, from start to finish, as well as to the existing technical installations. This enables us to work cost efficiently and customers can be certain that they will get the best possible gas quality. Moreover, we only work with materials that meet the most stringent laboratory requirements, even if these are industrial applications.”

Partnerships in 3D Printing

“We have already built up several partnerships with companies and universities, such as the VIVES University of Applied Sciences, EKZO, MX3D and RAMLAB. As we gather more knowledge and experience, we naturally take it with us to our next projects.”

VIVES University of Applied Sciences in Kortrijk, Belgium is participating in the TETRA research programme. The primary purpose of TETRA, which stands for ‘Technology Transfer’, is to increase the innovation capacity of companies by successfully implementing technological developments in specific applications.

AM4XT is one such project. It concerns 3D metal printing for extrusion moulds and calibres. Air Liquide is adding its expertise in cleaning the printed moulds and cooling the moulds with liquid nitrogen.

Building bridges in Benelux

Air Liquide is also working with MX3D on a special project to print a steel pedestrian and cyclist bridge using laser robots. The bridge, over the Ouderzijds Achterburwal canal in the heart of Amsterdam, will be opened at the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018.

Another interesting project involves a joint venture with RAMLAB (Rotterdam Additive Manufacturing Lab).

RAMLAB specialises in WAAM (Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing), in which laser-molten pieces of steel wire are used by a robot to manufacture objects. RAMLAB currently has a set-up in use to print ship propellers. As each ship has a unique propeller, repair times via traditional channels can be as long as six months or more.  This is a case where printing on demand clearly offers considerable added value. Air Liquide supplies RAMLAB with the necessary gases but also helps to develop new gas mixtures and new ideas.

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