Advanced PolymersAM PowdersExecutive InterviewsIndustrial Additive Manufacturing

The power of application-driven PBF materials

Exclusive interview with Donald Vanelli, President, and Darin Chartier, VP of Sales at ALM, an EOS company

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Founded in 2003 under a technology license from the University of Texas Austin, Advanced Laser Materials (ALM) began with the aim of developing and commercializing Nylon powders for the additive market that were more accessible than existing products. Since then, the company has evolved alongside the powder bed technology market, turning its focus increasingly to the development of industrial-grade powders suitable for production applications and application-specific material development. We had the opportunity to speak with Donald Vanelli, President of ALM, and Darin Chartier, ALM Vice President of Sales, who shared with us how the company—a part of EOS—operates, what sets it apart in the broader AM materials market and what its offering can tell us about the current state and future of powder bed fusion AM.

Merging with EOS

Germany-based EOS, a leading provider of SLS 3D printing solutions, began its acquisition of ALM in 2009 and saw it finalized in 2011. At the time, ALM developed and sold machine-agnostic powders primarily to OEMs and service bureaus. For EOS, which did not have a big footprint in the American market, partnering with ALM was a strategic entry point.

As Donald Vanelli tells us, “Part of the attraction between putting ALM and EOS together was the opportunity to pursue materials business for non-EOS machines and establish relationships with those customers.” This strategy has proven successful: “EOS has made a lot of gains over the last 10 years or so in terms of market share of polymers,” he adds.

The other important factor that drew EOS to ALM, was the company’s burgeoning capacity to produce application-specific materials, including the FR-106 flame-retardant nylon used by Boeing to produce air ducts for the 787 aircraft as of 2010. “The capability of doing customer-centric development around applications was really the reason for EOS buying ALM,” Vanelli explains. “Today, ALM is part of what we would call the central business unit of EOS with the charge of developing materials for non-EOS systems, which is actually becoming less and less of our business—it’s maybe 50% of our business now. And then the other half is looking at application-specific materials development. So if there’s a project or need, we can take some core materials that either we have or EOS has and we can modify those.”

The power of application-driven PBF materials. Interview with Donald Vanelli and Darin Chartier, from ALM, an EOS company.

Custom material development

The company’s custom material development service takes a holistic approach, first taking into account the company’s existing portfolio. “When a customer calls and asks for a material offering, we start with the application and work backwards,” Vanelli says. “If that application fits into a standard product that we already have, that’s great, but if our existing products don’t meet their requirements, we have the opportunity to sit down with the customer to understand what it is they really want. We can then see if we have something in the portfolio that we can tweak a little bit or if we need to start from the ground up.”

ALM’s application-specific approach also makes a lot of sense. As Vanelli and Chartier point out, it has benefits for both ALM’s clients and the company itself. “It’s always better to have a customer who has a need for the material rather than for us to launch a product and not know if anybody really needs it. So there’s an opportunity for a customer to get exactly what they want and it gives us this immediate market feedback and accelerates the iteration cycle. If you have somebody you can iterate the development with, in a real-world condition, it goes a lot faster.”

Typically, when ALM develops a material for a specific customer application, that material is ultimately commercialized and sold to other customers in a range of industries. “It is our preference to build a material that is applicable to the broader market,” Chartier comments. “While we’re not opposed to sharing IP or having the customer own the IP, it’s best if that material is applicable to the entire market. What we do then is work collaboratively with our customer so that they always end up with a market leading position: they get first opportunity in the market, and they might get a market leading price or a period of exclusivity.”

Vanelli adds: “Compared to the global plastics market, powder bed additive materials are a small piece of the pie. So the ability to spread a new product into the market is good for us commercially and it’s good for the overall market. It also helps with the economy of scale, so the price of the material comes down, which helps the initial customer too.”

All under one roof

ALM stands out in the powder bed market for its application-specific material development as well as for its all-encompassing production capacity, which brings R&D, production and logistics all under one roof. Vanelli is proud to tell us that the ALM team brings together a set of people who “on average have 10 or more years of experience in this industry.”

The power of application-driven PBF materials. Interview with Donald Vanelli and Darin Chartier, from ALM, an EOS company.

This experience plus the unique setup of the company, enables ALM to develop and commercialize materials quickly, as well as scale up production when needed. “We can do things fast because we touch all pieces of the process,” Vanelli says. “At ALM, we have a relatively small team, but that team encompasses many things: we have materials laboratory and materials science, we have powder bed AM process engineering and then we have order processing and logistics. We actually do the logistics for all materials for EOS North America, not only for our own business.”

Chartier adds: “We’re moving about 250 tons per year of our own products right now, and we’re moving about 150 tons of EOS products through the site logistics. Today, we’re running one shift at ALM with our production equipment, but that could be scaled very easily by adding a second one because we have the physical space to add more equipment. In fact, this year, we moved a new blender in and will be transitioning some manufacturing from Germany to the U.S. for some EOS products. In doing so, we’ll increase our capacity from roughly 250 tons to about 300-320 tons once that’s up and running.”

In terms of its production workflow, ALM orders base powders from raw material suppliers and does various types of mixing in-house. “We have two types of mixing technology,” Vanelli elaborates. “We have low-shear mixing technology and high-shear mixing technology. Low shear is used if you want to add fillers, while high-shear mixing is used for the efficient dispersion of micro-additives, pigments, antioxidants and things like that. We also use high-shear mixing for shaping powder particles.”

For its high-performance range, the company also has the capacity to cryogenically grind powders. “We can cryogenically grind about 50 tons,” he continues. “We also have heat treatments to change the way the powder melts or behaves, as well as sieving techniques to control particle size distribution.”

In terms of quality control, the ALM facility houses a QC lab with ISO 9001 certification. There, the company measures various properties of the raw powders it receives and the new materials it develops. Notably, the company’s R&D and production operations are closely linked, which results in a seamless transition between the two. “It’s good to have all the production and lab capacity for the R&D team, because at the end of the day, you need to make an economic solution for the customer,” Vanelli elaborates. “It can’t just work in the lab, it has to be scalable and it has to be economical. So for the people that are doing R&D to be exposed to production is great. It means we’re likely to make a product faster and more successfully than we would otherwise.”

ALM’s portfolio

ALM’s portfolio of powder bed fusion materials is broad, consisting of about 40 different powders, including core materials, fiber-filled powders, powders with specific properties and sustainable materials. “I tend to categorize our materials into three basic categories: industrial quality materials, reinforced materials and sustainable materials,” Vanelli says.

In the standard industrial range, ALM offers a number of its own products as well as many from the EOS portfolio. “This includes materials like PA 2200 that we’ve had for 20 plus years, as well as Evonik’s PA 12 and Arkema PA 11. These are mainstay products across the industry. At ALM, our portfolio is about 60% non-standard, so we’ll take these core products and derive other products from them.”

These newly derived materials often fall into the reinforced category. “It can include adding properties like static dissipation and fire retardancy—both of which are important in aerospace and other applications—and we also have fiber-reinforced materials, such as carbon fiber, mineral fiber and glass fiber. Some of these reinforced materials have compounded fibers, which means they’re incorporated directly into the particle, which generates isotropic properties—something traditionally not possible with SLS,” he continues.

In the sustainable category, ALM is focused on three things: renewably sourcing raw materials, reducing waste and minimizing impact. In terms of renewably sourcing raw materials, ALM is working with chemical companies on bio-based powders. “The reality is, plastic parts won’t all make it into the recycling,” Vanelli comments. “So what do we do with those parts to make sure that they don’t have any downstream negative impact on the environment? We’re addressing this in a number of ways. First, Arkema recently released a bio-sourced PA11 and there’s work right now with EOS to develop a climate-neutral PA 2200, and we’re also working on a polypropylene that is renewably sourced.

“The other thing we’re doing is working to stabilize polymers against degradation in the printing process. In particular, we’ve been working with Arkema on a PA 12 product that is chain terminated. We see that a lot with TPU and PP materials that are inherently stabilized against the long times they spend in SLS machines.” Increased stabilization could improve the buy-to-fly ratio of powders, increasing re-use rates for unsintered powder and ultimately minimizing waste.

On the third sustainability front of zero impact, ALM is working towards making materials more easily degradable. “We’ve been working for about three years on putting an additive into our polymers to make them more degradable in the environment. So if they do end up in a landfill, there are additives in there that will allow that polymer to start breaking down. It’s a long-term process, but in the space of two years, we’re already seeing these materials degrade about 30%, whereas normally you’d be looking at one or two percent—it’s a significant acceleration and reduces the long-term environmental impact of that material. We’re probably looking at commercializing some products based on that work in the next year or so, and we can also go back and mix the additive into some customer-specific materials.”

Applications and trends

One particular industry in which ALM has been active in terms of developing and supplying materials is unmanned aerospace. “I would say commercial unmanned aerospace is probably the sector of our business growing most right now for reinforced materials,” Chartier says. He points to a specific collaboration that illustrates ALM’s capabilities clearly with The Drone Bird Company, a Dutch company specializing in bird-shaped drones used to deter real birds from flying or building nests in potentially dangerous environments.

Prior to the use of 3D printing, the Drone Bird Company had been making its drones by hand using a combination of fiberglass and epoxy, which slowed down development and production times and effected profitability. “It’s an application where the company didn’t originally look at 3D printing at all,” Chartier elaborates. “In the beginning, they were making the drone body out of foam, but when it would crash, it would damage the internal electronic components. They then turned to 3D printing and to us for a solution. We recommended PA 640-GSL, a high-strength, lightweight carbon-reinforced Nylon.”

The power of application-driven PBF materials. Interview with Donald Vanelli and Darin Chartier, from ALM, an EOS company.

The company saw great success using the material and EOS P 396 machine, ultimately using the combination to produce the drone’s body and various cover flaps. PA 640-GSL is not only beneficial in terms of the protection it offers to the electronic components inside the UAV, but also because of the fact that the material floats, so that when the bird-shaped drone lands in water it can be recovered. Moreover, the use of 3D printing has sped up the company’s workflows for design, testing and production.

In discussing how demand for its materials has changed over the years, ALM’s leaders say that the biggest shift has been from predominantly supplying materials to OEMs and service bureaus for rapid prototyping to meeting a growing need for production-grade materials with specific properties.

“When I started in this space, there were two types of customers: OEMs that had rapid prototyping labs and service bureaus, whose demand was also largely prototyping. That didn’t change much until maybe the early 2010s,” Vanelli explains. At that time, production applications for SLS technologies were increasing, exemplified by Boeing’s adoption of the technology and ALM’s fire retardant material for 787 components.

“I would say the thing that’s unique is that all the growth that we’ve seen over the last few years is all in the space of highly specialized materials for production applications,” he continues. “And it’s not just the material, it’s also the process and the hardware that are being specialized. Everything we’re seeing growth-wide is production and its application specific.”

ALM will be featured in the EOS booth at the upcoming Rapid + TCT conference in Los Angeles this June. “Come see us, we’ll have many interesting applications and materials there,” Vanelli concludes.

This article was originally published in VoxelMatters’ VM Focus Polymer eBook. Read or download the full eBook for free at this link.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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