How are the metal and engineering industries renewed?

Many reasons are behind the need for industrial renewal, from political issues to the breakdown of international markets and the increase in competition between companies, not forgetting the utilization of the latest production technology. In Finland, high-quality products have traditionally been manufactured based on the quality of materials, design and manufacturing expertise. New knowledge and new technologies enable the development of even better materials, more efficient utilization of material properties as superiority factors of end products, and sustainable development. On the other hand, the mechanization and automation of processes in metal and machine shops already today enable globally competitive production.
3D-tulostettu avaruusraketin osa
3D-printed space rocket part.

The Nordic countries have been worldwide pioneers in introducing of green technology. The North Ostrobothnia region is preparing green steel production on a large scale, and the SMEs sector has effectively adopted the latest numerically controlled machine tools. Automation, for example using robots and cobots (collaborative robot), is also progressing by leaps and bounds. The spearhead of the University of Oulu's Future Manufacturing Technologies (FMT) research group is metal 3D printing and related material research. Metal 3D printing is a rapidly growing production technology, but the Nordic countries have lagged behind globally in its commercial utilization. In metal 3D printing, by far the most popular method both in Finland and internationally is the powder bed. This method, which is expensive in terms of investment costs, enables the production of small but precise parts. For small machine shops, the investment is large and the special features of the method are not yet known to be utilized in the development of new products or in increasing the superiority factors of existing products. On the other hand, the optimization of the manufacturing process has been shown to be necessary for the production of demanding products, with even large companies relying on university cooperation to improve product quality.

The direct metal deposition technique is particularly well suited to the industrial structure of Northern Ostrobothnia, but the technique is not yet used in the region's production. Compared to a powder bed, the method enables higher productivity, lower costs per kilo of metal printed, and clearly larger pieces to be printed. The method's energy source is usually either arc welding equipment or a laser, with the materials being either powder or (welding) wire. In many machine shops, the necessary equipment, materials and welding expertise can already be found.

Large space companies have been at the forefront of demonstrating the suitability of direct deposition printing in rocket manufacturing, where the technology has shortened the manufacturing time, increased superiority product features and reduced manufacturing costs. Pioneer work has shown the technology's suitability especially for the development of heat exchangers, but on the other hand, also for the production of complex geometries with reduced costs. Geometric freedom has also been utilized, for example, in the manufacture of various impellers and in the printing of complex machining ingots close to the final dimension.

In the case of the previous examples, direct deposition printing also enables a significant reduction of the carbon footprint, with the benefit of minimizing waste material. More practical examples can be found in European rail transport, where technology has been utilized in the maintenance of tracks and rolling stock. The damaged part can be cut off using traditional methods, while 3D printing enables repair printing of the damaged part. Technology also offers artistic and architectural possibilities. In Amsterdam, for example, you can find an entire 3D-printed footbridge, which highlights e.g. aesthetic possibilities of technology.

What is the machine shop of the future? A highly automated, even autonomous production unit, where digital systems and products are manufactured using several different manufacturing methods into uniform quality and competitive products. Depending on the product's characteristics and requirements, the manufacturing process includes various manufacturing steps, of which metal 3D printing can be one. As part of traditional material removal, molding and joining manufacturing, 3D printing enables flexible and comprehensive production. Now we can ask, what is the role of the domestic industry in global 3D printing development and how can we get the SME sector involved in the development?

Antti Järvenpää, Ph.D., research director, University of Oulu, Kerttu Saalasti Institute, Future Manufacturing Technologies (FMT) research group

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