Innoboard: SLM Solutions Group AG is one of the 2017 growth champions in Germany. What makes SLM Solutions Group AG so successful?
Henner Schöneborn: The most successful element is the highly motivated TEAM, coupled with the targets to become a world leader in Metal Additive Technologies. Having this in mind, SLM is able to run through innovation programs as the employees know that they can achieve this. This as a basic attitude, we can easy cope with a high flexibility on our products. Customers today would like to see the openness of a technical system and not a guided direction of the vendor how to use the equipment. SLM offers both: customized solutions and cooperation with the customers and vendors to make Additive Manufacturing a success. Our strengths are to sell this on a reliable and trustful manner. Summary: SLM is directed to generate a success for the customer and to make this viable.
What is the component manufactured on your machines you are the most enthusiastic about?
We have a couple of technical features which are ahead of our competition – and biggest success for us is, when competitors start to copy our ideas. Therefore, you need to know, that SLM´s target always was “Productivity”. Having this in mind, the Bi-directional Recoating, the Multi Laser Technology, the closed Loop Powder Cycle are the most successful technical solutions today. Shortly explained, the Multi Laser technology is there to weld the working surface and fusion the metallic powder, creating layers that finally create the designed and desired shape. The closed Loop Powder Cycle stands for the exact microstructural, mechanic, geometrical and chemical addition of powder in order to achieve the best cohesion of it. On top of this we are starting with our software solutions for data preparation and are looking at features like the “HeardCell Support” the “DownSkin” parameters and a lot of other features which enable the customer to save time, material and minimize the risk of faulty parts.
In the industrial application of additive manufacturing processes, overall integration into development and production processes is crucial. What are the key challenges today?
The main challenge is that most of the industry does not know the complexity. For many of us the manufacturing world is educated by the classical way to machine parts – by means to design parts for cutting, casting or forging and joining. Still only a minority thinks “Generative – Additive”. That also means, that the whole infrastructure inside a manufacturing plant is still optimized to the “classical” way. When we come along with “a SLM Machine”, the infrastructure first remains. As a first step, we try to bring people to optimize the technologies around the Additive Process. To show them the data handling and how to optimize and combine the data preparation for the SLM-Machine and in parallel to design the tool path (e.g. milling) for the post processing. Another approach is the integration of SLM-data preparation systems in the facility data infrastructure. This is the most critical effort as a lot of companies still have rules with hinder them to be up-to-date.
However: Our target is to educate the Designer to learn and experience the design rules of Additive instead of transferring a mechanical designed part in an additive environment; to educate machine users to transfer the approved additive design in a real part which creates benefits (commercially and technology wise); to design the work flow after the build to a minimized hand crafts processing by using and combining the classic machining technologies; the support with quality tools to ensure the quality of the physically build part.
What approaches does SLM Solutions Group AG pursue to solve these challenges?
We already started in 2010 with the split from MTT (today Renishaw Additive). This gave us the ability to move in an innovative direction: Since that time, we have focused on topics to close the gaps by first building strong single “cylinders” like the joint venture with the Software Group in Austria, the joint venture with a Powder Manufacturer, and cooperations with an endless number of companies, for example lately, the cooperation with pL in Swizerland to bring parts directly on machining centers with a directed 0-point clamping system. Another approach is our SLM Training Academy – so far only a few workshops have been realized – but we will speed up soon. The idea is to teach and consult companies to their specific needs like design, data preparation, use of equipment, shop floor organization and post processing. As we see a high demand on such programs, we will extend them in the future. As soon as a group is up to speed and on track, we integrate the team in our main Group. This enables us to make use of the strengths when both are ready but keeps them independent as long they do not fit perfectly.
What is your personal goal for the next two years regarding innovation?
As a board member and CTO, it is my responsibility to strengthen the topics mentioned above. But also, to find new targets which can be beneficial for the group. This will not only be on a groups level. The challenges the industry has, the alliances, which are growing left and right to us, the competition coming from all over the world since the Core Patent from ILT already expired in Nov 2017. My biggest aim is to make SLM the world leader in Additive Metal Powder Bed technologies. Having in mind and the topics mentioned above, the word leader could imply many different things: Market Leader, Technology Leader, etc. However: I think to be up-front with mind setting and looking back to question 2, the biggest success will be, when SLM is able to stay independent to create its vision and to have as many as possible companies which have to license our inventions. Even though you do not see this today, but SLM is the only company which has patents everyone needs (and already uses – partly licensed and partly infringing). Having this in mind, the strategy we are following since 2010 and sharpened 2013, now starts to become fruitful.
Also getting back to innovation: We recently announced that we changed our structure to an even more innovative and product driven process. This means we will be able to integrate innovations much faster and easier into a product. Therefore, the next two years I will mainly make innovations profitable. The tools and paths are prepared. SLM was able to acquire approx. € 60 Mio by the End of 2017 and has a strong order book for the next two to three years. Some of the customers who have placed orders to be fulfilled in 2019+. These customers expect the deliveries as “systems integrated in the existing shop floor and/or prepared to do so”. This means we have already needs to fulfill some of the topics discussed earlier.
About the interviewee:
Henner Schöneborn (*1963) graduated in mechanical engineering at Cologne College of Applied Sciences and went on to qualify in technical operating management at the Cologne European Academy. Before joining SLM Solutions, he was product manager at Hahn & Kolb in Stuttgart, a technology specialist for machine tools. He started to work for SLM Solutions and its predecessor companies in 1993. Since 2014 Schöneborn is a member of the Management Board at SLM Solutions Group AG with responsibility for the Corporate Development and Innovation area.