This week I trekked to Detroit to visit SLM Solutions North America for an inside look at their metal 3D printing operations.
Housed in a quiet business park, the fairly suburban location holds some of the original technology in metal 3D printing. We recently had a look at the history of SLM Solutions, including the company’s role in originating selective laser melting additive manufacturing technology — so it was a great opportunity to walk through the doors to meet with the team at one of their operational bases.
SLM Solutions AG is headquartered in Lübeck, Germany; in Wixom, Michigan, SLM Solutions North America operates a 17,000-square-foot site focusing on the market on this side of the Atlantic.
The North American team currently comprises about 35 employees, and with focus on this market growing, that number is also set to expand. They plan to fill 10 more positions this year.
I spent the afternoon with three of that team: Director Applications Engineering Aaron LaLonde, PhD; Application Engineer Kyle Adams; and Marketing Specialist Maria VanHaverbeck.
In quite a change from SLM Solutions operations of years past, when the company played its cards so close to the vest we had no idea what they had in their hand, transparency was the word of the day. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through the office, lab, post-processing and metrology setups, and even the warehouse.
The company has been public since 2014, so there’s a certain level of information they are required to divulge. That doesn’t often translate into “feel free to take photos or ask anything” when on-site, though — so it was definitely refreshing to visit a company that holds several patents and is still willing to share.
At this particular facility, the focus is on sales and service.
To that end, they operate a fully functional showroom. Within the next few months, following the installation of their SLM 280 Production system, the Wixom location will have at least one of each of its machines up and running (aside from the massive SLM 800, which simply doesn’t fit in the current space — much too tall).
My tour began with the relatively small SLM 125, which is best suited to developmental applications, and is popular with universities conducting research. The system — the one at Wixom is called “Meerkat,” as each machine there is named for an animal — offers the same functionality and power as any other SLM Solutions machine, just a bit smaller and than its larger siblings and with a single laser instead of a possible two or four.
It worked well to demonstrate the basic setup of all SLM Solutions systems, including the all-important powder handling process. The company prides itself on being “the safest” in metal 3D printing, as there’s next to no powder exposure at any point; the only time the powder is exposed to air — and thus to workers — is when opening a new tub and applying the valved handling unit. Once it’s been so equipped, the powder is always in a controlled inert environment, with no operator exposure.
The next larger system, the SLM 280, can have one or two lasers. Three of these systems were set up, with one at work on a customer part and another on a demonstrator part at the time of my visit. The systems I observed were each operating with two 700W lasers.
Finally (until the production system arrives), the SLM 500 is a “much deeper system,” as Adams noted. This is the flagship system, running with two or four lasers — the company notes it was the first quad-laser system on the market.
Sales and Support
The importance of keeping all of the systems in-house comes down to the two briefly mentioned primary functions of this site: sales and support.
First and foremost, the site is a nice showroom. It’s clean, it’s still pretty new — having opened in January 2017 — it’s spacious, and there are plenty of meeting rooms to speak with customers. More than that, though, it’s functional.
Customers are welcome to the site at any time to take a hands-on look at the exact system they’re thinking of buying.
Investing in a metal additive manufacturing system is not inconsequential for either budget or operations (an SLM Solutions system can run anywhere from about $400,000 to more than $2 million), so it’s critical that a potential customer really understand what they’re getting into — from beginning to end.
“Our sales process is very hands-on,” LaLonde told me. “Customers are training for the exact system they’ll buy. They can build benchmark and demo parts to prove out their designs. The process is the same on every machine, but if you’re buying a 280, you want the benchmark done on a 280. Then you take it right over here and put the samples under microscopes, getting a look into the parts. You go into post-processing, you’re getting a look into a working facility from beginning to end. We want you to be prepared to have a solution for all of these aspects. A lot of what we do comes down to the customer not having any surprises once their system is installed; we want them to be ultra comfortable when their machine arrives.”
Once a customer has committed to a system, the intent is to be sure they’re ready for it. Training can be done on-site with the customer or at the SLM Solutions lab with the team’s application engineers.
The facility is set up to showcase exactly what’s needed: prepping for prints, 3D printing, removing from the build plate, finishing parts, checking them out. The aforementioned warehouse also keeps a full inventory of every part that might be necessary so a customer won’t be facing unexpected downtime waiting for a part to come in from Germany.
If a customer faces an issue during their own operation, they can call in to the team, who — since they have the same systems and materials — can try to replicate the problem. That allows for quick, close communication, without travel between sites or trying to describe a problem, reducing downtime and speeding solutions.
We’ll be taking a look into more about SLM Solutions’ operations, as these have been evolving under the new leadership structure since Meddah Hadjar took over as CEO effective May 1, 2019.
A lot has changed, and will continue to be changing, and this was part of our conversation as SLM Solutions is refining its vision for a more focused future going forward.
More on this soon as we continue to dive into SLM Solutions.
Via SLM Solutions NA