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German regional state government North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) is backing the AddSteel R&D project, which is intended to “digitalize” the steel industry. Coordinated by SMS Group, a plant engineering company based in Mönchengladbach, this project, due to be completed in 2021, is developing new function-adapted steel materials for additive manufacturing.

One of the project’s key aims is the qualification of new materials for laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) metallic 3D printing process, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT) in Aachen.

AddSteel this week published a mid-stage report describing one of the project notable achievements as “the development of the first case-hardening and heat-treatable steel powders designed specifically for LPBF applications.”

“The AddSteel members are working to optimize the atomization process in the new plant at SMS Group to achieve a maximum ratio of the desired metal powder size,” explained Andreas Vogelpoth explained, a member of the Laser Powder Bed Fusion Group and head of the AddSteel project at Fraunhofer ILT. “The materials being developed are designed to enable LBPF manufacturing of tools, gear wheels or highly-loaded parts such as hydraulic valve blocks.”

Coping with sales declines

A major challenge facing steelmakers in Germany, especially in NRW, is the continuing decline in sales. Previously, production efficiency was increased by modifying manufacturing processes and equipment. Now, however, developers and users are increasingly focusing on the alloys to be processed. Innovative materials offer new potential for competitive advantages.

The AddSteel report states, “The steel industry needs new materials to meet customers’ increasingly complex demands for products they can use, for instance, to manufacture lightweight and crash-resistant components for the automotive sector.”

This is where additive manufacturing techniques such as laser powder bed fusion come into play, thanks to its ability to exploit digital data to improve component design and functionality. The report adds, “Adopting metallic 3D printing based on LPBF technology also gives users the opportunity to sustainably optimize the steel industry’s value chain.”

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