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Q&A with Richard Neff – Big Area Additive Manufacturing

SME recently completed a Q & A with Richard Neff, BAAM Sales Manager at Cincinnati Incorporated, to discuss Big Area Additive Manufacturing.

Big Area Additive Manufacturing is a unique part of the additive manufacturing industry. What significant achievements have taken place with the technology in the last few years?

Additive manufacturing is truly an industrial process used to make things. It is really manufacturing. We’re not taking about prototyping or making toys. We’re talking about really manufacturing something substantial that you can use. Industry is starting to understand how the different tools in additive manufacturing can be productively used in their operations.

Big Area Additive Manufacturing goes in a different direction than traditional additive manufacturing which is typically trying to figure out how intricate a part can we make, or fine a detail can we build into a part? That’s one of the selling features of additive manufacturing. You can make very intricate parts fairly easily. But what we’re looking at is how we can make large parts fast and productively, and how we can make them affordably. We’ve been able to do that with Big Area Additive Manufacturing.

Do you see an ultimate goal with the technology?

We don’t know where all the markets will be with BAAM because it’s such a new technology. It’s really interesting; we can show the technology to someone who has been working in the 3D printing world for 20 years and they look at it go, “Wow, this blows my mind. I have no idea what the next best application for this would be.”

When we look at BAAM, it’s such a new technology that I can’t tell you where it’s going to be in 5 years. But I can tell you that every few weeks we’re finding new applications and new places where it can be used. We are learning where it can be used profitably, like in the aerospace tooling world. It’s awesome for making tools that make aircraft. For flying components made with additive, you have to qualify the processes to ensure that everybody’s lives on the airplane are safe, that’s a difficult thing to do.  Tooling does not fly so the quality levels are much easier to achieve with a new process like BAAM.

Let’s look at simpler things that we can make, like tooling and fixturing for manufacturing processes. You don’t make a lot of them. Tooling need to be customized for each process, whether you’re manufacturing seats for an automobile or fuselages for a fighter airplane. There is a lot of tooling that goes into each application.

The tooling industry in the United States, tool and die making, doesn’t seem to be a profession that young people are jumping into today. The average age of tool and die makers is actually pretty high. We’re going to lose a lot of that technology in making fixturing and tooling in the traditional methods. Finding new methods that are more efficient and less expensive is going to be pretty exciting. That’s where we see a home from BAAM in the next years. After that, who knows where it will lead.

Can BAAM be applied to anything specific within the oil and gas industry?

So far we haven’t come upon a particular application in the oil and gas industry. Not because it’s not applicable but because we haven’t really been exposed to that market as much. That’s one of the reasons why we’re coming to HOUSTEX.

One of the really cool things we’ve found in working with Oakridge National Laboratories Manufacturing Demonstration Facility is that we’ve wound up collaborating with a lot of different companies. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the Marine Corp. and Navy at NAVAIR have helped us develop the aerospace tooling application but we haven’t had people in the oil and gas industry look at this technology and say, “What can it do for me?”

So part of the real attraction of going to HOUSTEX is to get exposure of this new tool to the oil and gas industry so that the people there can see what they can do with this technology if they had it. We’re seeking those applications at HOUSTEX and figuring out how it can be used in other ways.

Do you see many challenges in bringing BAAM into wider commercial use?

The interesting challenge is finding the right applications that really work. If somebody gave you just a screwdriver and said, “Go out and fix the world,” that’s great when you start finding screws but there are all kinds of things that a screwdriver doesn’t help you with. Walking around with the world’s first screwdriver would be interesting when searching for the right applications for it. Spreading the word and learning what people do can help.

Does Cincinnati work with the combined hybrid additive and subtractive technology and how do you see the technology fitting into today’s industry?

When we look at additive, we manufacture parts. Almost any part needs to be post-processed in one way or another. When you walk into a typical service bureau, you see all their beautiful 3D printers and if you go to the next room, which is probably larger, you find all the people doing the secondary processes; sanding the surfaces smooth, vapor-smoothing, filling and painting. They make the parts look really nice once they come off the 3D printer.

With BAAM, we print with fairly large layers, which are about a tenth of an inch high. And you can see the layers in the parts when we print them. If you want a smooth surface, it needs to have the surface filled or it needs to be machined. We think that machining the surface is a really important part of the process, especially if you’re making something like tooling that needs to be extremely accurate.

Now there’s a challenge when you’re processing thermoplastics and that is when you print thermoplastics, they’re hot. And when they begin to cool off they shrink. Once they cool off, they tend to shrink a little bit more. So if we tried to machine something before it cooled off, we would have trouble having an accurate part when we’re finished. What we need to do with a part off the BAAM is let it sit for about a day before it’s machined. And it makes a whole lot more sense to do it in a separate machine, rather than a hybrid machine that’s trying to both things at once.

What materials and properties do you use with the BAAM technology?

One of the really cool things about BAAM is that it has a thermoplastic extruder on it and it’s available with several different extrusion screws so we can optimize it for different thermoplastics. We mostly print in reinforced thermoplastics. So that’s a plastic-like ABS, the stuff we make Lego blocks out of with a reinforcing fiber in it, either glass or carbon fiber. But there are all kinds of other thermoplastics that we can use. We can use Ultem, PPS, PLA or Lexan as different thermoplastics with different properties. So depending on what you want do, whether it has to be chemically resistant or work at high temperature, we would pick different formulas to use. We have a fairly open platform which means that customers can formulate their own plastics and put them into the machine. We have lots of customers whose secret sauce is going to be the plastic that they use.

We started out with ABS that has carbon fiber in it. And now most of the projects that Oakridge National Labs have done, and most of the projects that we have done have been in ABS with about 20% carbon fiber. We’ve printed cars and a submarine for delivering Navy SEALS. We’ve printed a house. We’ve printed lots of tooling. We printed a Guinness Book of World Records tool that we made with Boeing for their 777 X Winglet. It was printed in ABS with carbon fiber.