IAPT highlights state of the art 3D printing in future

Cutting edge technology lets Fraunhofer institute offer crucial assistance in pandemic
14 April 2021
IAPT FCA Radträger

3D printing technology is opening up mind-boggling possibilities and gaining ever more importance amid the pandemic. Frank Beckmann, Deputy Director of the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Additive Production Technologies (IAPT), has spent 12 years working intensely on the technology and its transfer to industry. In an interview with Hamburg News, Beckmann highlights the present state of the technology, its increasing economic viability and 3D printing in the pandemic.

Hamburg News: Mr Beckmann, 3D printing first emerged in the 1980s. What is possible in the 21st century?

Frank Beckmann: The first 3D printing process, stereolithography, was invented in the 1980s to produce plastic components. Meanwhile, almost 40 years later, countless additive manufacturing processes are on the market, especially for producing complex metal components. From small and sublime pieces of jewellery made of precious metal to patient-specific printed acetabulum made of titanium, to rocket components that fly to Mars, many things are possible and have already been achieved. The applications are no longer limited to prototypes and cover ready-to-use components whose properties are superior to those made in conventional processes.

Frank Beckmann,  Deputy Director of the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Additive Production Technologies (IAPT)
© Private
Deputy Director of the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Additive Production Technologies (IAPT)

Hamburg News: What does this superiority consist of and what are the advantages of 3D printing?

Frank Beckmann: The first, major advantage is the enormous geometric design freedom that can be achieved through additive manufacturing. The layer-by-layer construction of components facilitates the production of complex geometries such as lattice structures or bionic structures, which cannot be done using conventional manufacturing or only with great effort. IAPT uses this advantage to redesign and print, for instance, connecting structures for aviation, so-called brackets or a wheel suspension with integrated brake caliper for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (now Stellantis). In each case, the use of 3D printing saved around 40 per cent of the weight because such highly efficient designs mean components only have to have material for load transmission where needed.

Hamburg News: The technology is also flexibile and suitable for small-scale production. What role is 3D printing playing in the pandemic?

Frank Beckmann: A second important advantage is that the design can be printed straight from the CAD data set without the casting and forging tools or CNC programming for milling. That means components can be produced very flexibly and economically and even in small quantities and that shortens supply chains enormously. This advantage has become noticeable during the pandemic. We printed adapters for respirators and holders for face shields at the Fraunhofer IAPT very quickly and were able to provide swift, unbureaucratic aid in Germany and Italy, which was badly hit by the shortage of such equipment.

We have also developed two mobile, container-based manufacturing units that can additively process both plastic and metal. They can also print medical products in crisis areas or missing components for companies with interrupted supply chains. 3D printing is helping with crisis management and boosts the resilience of supply chains thanks to flexible component manufacturing.

Hall in Fraunhofer IAPT
© Fraunhofer IAPT
Hall in Fraunhofer IAPT

Hamburg News: What challenges does the technology face?

Frank Beckmann: One of the main challenges is the limited productivity of additive manufacturing processes and the resulting manufacturing costs. Thus some applications still fail as they are not economical. However, this issue has been noted and is among the focal points of IAPT's research and development. We have just installed a new, sinter-based technology called binder jetting, which promises to significantly increase the productivity of metal components. We are also working intensely on increasing the processing speed of existing methods such as selective laser beam melting.

Hamburg News: Are companies in Hamburg fully aware of the advantages of 3D printing?

Frank Beckmann: Actually, users are not fully aware of the potential of 3D printing and the possible designs and this remains a hurdle. Worthwhile applications remain unrecognised and the full potential of existing components is not exploited. Design approaches hitherto were along the lines of "design for manufacturing" meaning designs were limited by conventional manufacturing, for instance, undercuts or cavities were not possible in milling or casting. Now, 3D printing affords the production of highly-complex, random structures. The existing design credo should be broadened to enable function-driven design for 3D printing. Our Additive Academy training courses are shaping change and offer companies part screenings to identify valuable, useful components.

Hamburg News: Where will 3D printing be used most in future?

Frank Beckmann: Prototype construction and the production of medical implants are pioneering the industrialisation of 3D printing. Dental implants or hip sockets for replacement are already being mass-produced using additive manufacturing. Aviation has also made great strides in recent years and various applications are now aboard aircraft. The continuous increase in productivity and profitability is leading to a major push of the technology in the automotive industry. Until now, the use of 3D printing was limited to prototypes, but the first small series have emerged and many more applications will follow.

IAPT - door handle for a sports car
© Fraunhofer IAPT
IAPT door handle for a sports car

Hamburg News: Where do the focal points and opportunities lie in Hamburg?

Frank Beckmann: Apart from aviation, Hamburg holds many other potential opportunities, for instance in shipbuilding and the mid-sized industry. Medical technology companies and various highly innovative mechanical engineering companies have already tapped into 3D printing. We are always sounding out our networks to find more applications. But 3D printing also offers Hamburg opportunities in the process chain. We already have successful providers of simulation software, new powder materials or concrete 3D printing in the city. Other exciting start-ups are emerging close to Fraunhofer IAPT.

Hamburg News: Many thanks for the most interesting talk. 

Interview by Yvonne Scheller


The Fraunhofer Institution for Additive Production Technologies (IAPT) stands for applied research as well as industry transfer in all matters related to industrial 3D printing. The IAPT emerged in 2018 from the previous Laser Zentrum Nord GmbH which was founded in 2009. Almost 100 employees develop innovations along the entire 3D printing process chain from bionic design, highly-productive processes, new materials and automated manufacturing systems with AI-based quality assurance approaches. Emphasis is on close co-operation with industry and applies to both small family businesses in Hamburg and major international corporations.