30.11.2021 | Handelsblatt | Ponticon; 3D printing for mass production: "Very often we are ten times faster" | Axel Höpner

The start-up has co-developed a machine that can be used to print objects extremely quickly. The goal is to generate sales in the hundreds of millions.

3D printing has already become widely accepted for building prototypes - but in many cases additive manufacturing remains too slow for industrial mass production.

The company Ponticon aims to make a breakthrough with a new technology that enables objects to be coated and printed particularly quickly and precisely - and thus to generate sales figures in the hundreds of millions in the long term. "We want to become one of the major global players in the industry," says co-owner Oliver Schorn.

3D printing has long been seen as a great beacon of hope in the industry. It allows for the production of entirely new forms, which is one reason why it has already been adopted for manufacturing aviation industry parts, for example.

Experts predict double-digit growth rates for the industry. "3D printing will establish itself and find its permanent place in industry," says Frank Herzog, founder of 3D printer manufacturer Concept Laser.

According to a study by Learnbonds, the 3D printing market could grow from just over $16 billion to $40.8 billion by 2024. German companies such as Eos, Concept Laser and Trumpf play a leading role in the industry.

3D printing enables new welding technology for complex components

Ponticon is now looking to join those ranks. The company is now launching its first model under the name pE3D. Next year, three to four machines are to be sold at one to two million euros a piece, depending on the specification. "The initial focus here is on research institutions, partly so as to enable industrial end customers with the know-how available there and to introduce them to the technology as quickly as possible," says Managing Director Tobias Stittgen.

Ponticon designed the machine for the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT). The extreme high-speed laser material deposition (EHLA) process invented at ILT is being further developed on this machine, which is initially being used to coat metal parts.

In contrast to conventional laser material deposition, in EHLA the metallic powder material is melted by the laser before it hits the component to be coated. As a result, it is already in a liquid state when it reaches the component, which is rotating very quickly around its own axis. "EHLA is suitable for anything that is rotationally symmetrical and can be processed on fast rotating kinematics," says Jonathan Schaible of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT).

This process is already being used today to protect highly stressed parts - for example in the aerospace or automotive sectors - from corrosion and wear.

Until a few years ago, hard chrome plating was the principal method used in such cases. However, since September 2017 EU approval for this process has been subject to strict conditions, as electrochemical deposition of toxic chromium is harmful to the environment.

Due to the rotational symmetry required, however, it has only certain been possible to coat components such as hydraulic cylinders, rollers or brake discs in two dimensions using EHLA until now.

Therefore, at the beginning of 2018, the Fraunhofer ILT set out to find a partner to continue developing EHLA for other, more complex shapes and 3D printing. According to Ponticon, the pE3D system it has developed meets precisely these requirements. The more advanced process is referred to as 3D EHLA: components no longer have to be rotationally symmetrical, but can be almost any shape thanks to highly dynamic five-axis kinematics.

"Manufacturing times similar to thermal spraying are achieved during coating. However, the applied alloy is far more durable because we join the materials together with a material bond," explains Stittgen.

Supply bottlenecks confer advantages to 3D printing

The machine is equipped with three linear motors connected to the motion unit via carbon-fiber-reinforced rods. In the current version, components up to 70 centimeters in diameter and 80 centimeters high can be coated and additively manufactured with up to five times gravitational acceleration and speeds of up to 200 meters per minute. With conventional laser material deposition, Ponticon reports, speeds of just 0.5 to two meters per minute are the norm.

Another advantage from the design engineers' point of view is that completely new materials can be developed and subsequently used with 3D EHLA. For example, objects can be coated with metallic glasses, says Stittgen. "This is highly useful in areas such as the hydrogen industry, medical technology and also space travel."

3D EHLA has an important role to play, he says, where the highest demands are placed on materials and components, for instance in the production of gas and wind turbines, toolmaking and high-performance electronics. Entrepreneur Schorn adds: "Here we see huge potential that we can tap for our customers with the Ponticon’s technology and know-how."

Not only can objects be coated with the machine, they can also be completely rebuilt. So Ponticon also serves the conventional market for 3D printing "We are simply much faster, very often ten times faster," says Managing Director Stittgen.

With conventional processes, it either takes a very long time to print, or you have to sacrifice some of the precision. "We can offer both speed and precision," which means the technology can still be productive for 3D printing on a mass scale.

The timing is favorable for Ponticon. During the Covid-19 pandemic, 3D printing was able to play to its strengths. When supply chains were disrupted, many companies were happy to print out a much-needed replacement part. "The role that additive manufacturing played during the pandemic will continue to resonate beyond these times," EOS CEO Marie Langer is convinced.

Moreover, the willingness of industrial companies to invest has risen strongly again after a Covid-related slump. According to the industry association VDMA, incoming orders in September were up by as much as 65 percent compared to the previous year. Over the first nine months, there was an increase of 36 percent.

However, demand can hardly be met due to the shortage of materials and components. The revival in demand remains intact, with hoarding purchases only accounting for a small portion of orders, said VDMA expert Olaf Wortmann. "But it will take longer than usual for this to turn into sales."

At Ponticon, meanwhile, the first million-dollar sales are expected as early as next year. "In seven to eight years, we are aiming to be in the mid three-digit million range," says Schorn with confidence.