Expert Interview: MELD Manufacturing CEO Nanci Hardwick on Fulfilling the Potential of Metal Additive Manufacturing
15 May 2019
MELD Manufacturing Corporation is pioneering a radical new technology that enables the 3D printing of metals without melting. For over a decade, the technology was under development with tech firm, Aeroprobe, before MELD spun out as a subsidiary in the spring of 2018.
MELD Manufacturing entered the metal 3D printing market with the introduction of its large scale B8 machine in April 2018. Challenging typical powder bed metal 3D printing processes, the B8 uses a solid-state fabrication process based on friction stir welding. Using friction and pressure to bond metal together without melting opens up numerous advantages unique to MELD technology.
This week, we’re pleased to talk with MELD Manufacturing CEO, Nanci Hardwick, to discuss what sets MELD apart from other metal AM processes and the role the technology will play in the future of manufacturing.
What is the vision behind MELD Manufacturing?
MELD Manufacturing is a woman-owned small business launched last year and located in Virginia, US.
We’ve been busy since our launch and received a lot of wonderful recognition last year, finishing 2018 with an R&D 100 Award. It’s an international competition that recognises the most innovative new products across all industries and countries, selecting just 100.
Our mission is to revolutionise manufacturing and to enable what’s currently impossible, one example being the repair of the unrepairable. At MELD, our application of additive manufacturing is a bit broader than with other AM companies. It includes a wider spectrum of uses and begins with the material itself, continues through the ability to manufacture parts additively and then continues on to offer greater value by being able to repair what’s already been created.
We feel that today there are still limitations in AM products and designs, but MELD can offer an opportunity to begin at square one and create a product truly designed for optimal performance.
Can you explain how the MELD technology works?
Our technology is quite unique. The fundamental attribute of MELD is that it is a solid-state process. Most metal additive or traditional processes require the melting of metal. However, the possibility to process metal without melting creates some exciting benefits.
The technology behind MELD is rather simple which is one of its biggest benefits.
We have a hollow tool through which we pass the material. The process can accommodate a huge variety of materials in different forms, including powder, flake chips or solid bars.
Whatever the material, it comes into the rotating tool, where extreme pressure and friction are working to plastically deform not only the material we’re adding but the material onto which we’re depositing.
When both are in a state of plastic deformation we can literally stir the two together. The easiest way to think about this methodology is as an additive friction stir process.
The stirring action breaks up individual material grains, creating a refined grain structure, which provides enhanced strength and performance properties, including corrosion and impact fatigue resistance.
This process enables a superior bond between what is being added and what is being added to. This enables users to not only fabricate a new part but also to repair, coat or add features to an existing part.
This process is very flexible because it occurs below the melting temperature of the materials we’re working with. As a result, we can process the widest range of materials, including unweldable metals or materials that are not available for fusion-based processes.
We can process a much wider shape variety of materials like powders, chips and solid rod or wire. There aren’t any specifications or requirements for the MELD machine in terms of material input, which is very unique in the world of additive. In fact, some other manufacturers of AM equipment have such tight tolerances on their raw material requirements that they require their users to buy the material from them.
MELD is an open atmosphere additive manufacturing process. Most of the metal additive equipment has some container around it. This container is used either to create a vacuum or to evacuate the oxygen and bring in a non-oxygen gas like Argon. With processes like MELD, when you’re not melting metal, you don’t necessarily have to worry about oxygen pickup, as other processes do. This also results in a more economical, safer and greener additive process.
Furthermore, an open atmosphere allows for an extremely scalable process. With closed atmosphere 3D printers, if you want to make a bigger part, you have to find a bigger container to operate your processes. But with MELD, that’s not the case. Some of the applications being considered for additive now are things of really large scale like ships, spacecraft, bridges for repair specifically. MELD, being an open atmosphere process, gives you a lot of freedom in such applications.
Continuing the list of benefits, our technology is very low power because it doesn’t use lasers. The material deposition rates are quite high and the finished part requires little post-processing because the material being deposited is already fully dense. It means that you don’t need any second steps to get to a final part, like Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP) or sintering.
How does the technology compare to other metal AM methods?
There is opportunity and the best use cases for all processes. A single process can’t fill every need. That’s why it’s important to understand the unique attributes of each process. For MELD, the unique attribute as compared to other metal 3D technologies is that it’s solid-state.
We are the only technology that is able to scale and build or repair very large parts. Another unique capability is that you could take an existing part and place it in the machine and then add additional material, whether you want a wear resistance coating on a very lightweight material, or whether you’d like to add the material to repair a worn surface.
The fact that this is a lower heat process means that we’re creating less residual stress, which manifests itself in reduced distortion. MELD can put quite a bit of material on a very thin plate without distortion. This makes MELD of extreme interest to the automotive and aerospace industries.
Imagine that you manufacture an aircraft fuselage panel. With a conventional approach, you would take a four-inch thick plate of aluminium and machine out 80% of the material to get to a thin plate with a web of ribs stiffeners, which has the minimal weight but the maximum structural strength and performance. With the MELD process, we can start with a very thin plate and add those ribs stiffeners without creating residual stress which can destroy that plate.
Another differentiator of the MELD technology is that it supports the widest range of materials, whereas there are AM machines that only accept one or maybe two or three materials.
Coming back to where we’re really headed to, we also offer an opportunity to actually create the material. With a MELD machine, you can create your own alloy and metal matrix composites in situ.
If you think about the value proposition of additive manufacturing in general, in terms of prototyping, it gives companies an opportunity to evaluate a new geometry of a part very quickly. MELD will offer that same value proposition for the evaluation of new materials. The users of our technology can tailor their alloy recipes and then conduct testing to support the optimisation effort of a new alloy. To me, that’s one of the most exciting opportunities that the technology offers.
Furthermore, MELD is the only technology demonstrated to recycle materials. For example, you could take machine chips from a machine shop and fabricate a part with the MELD machine. This is a huge differentiator in terms of how green and environmentally friendly this process is.
Finally, when you put some of these benefits together: it’s low power, doesn’t emit gases and is quite easy to use — those attributes together make MELD very attractive process in terms of portability. This is of interest to organisations like the US Army that wants to bring additive capabilities to the battlefield. Power generation companies that have very large equipment in the field also would benefit from using additive to minimise downtime and do the repair at the point of need.
What makes metal 3D printing so attractive to the industries you’ve mentioned?
So far I haven’t found an industry yet that can’t benefit from additive manufacturing and from the MELD technology, in particular. Additive has a lot to offer in terms of materials and industrial applications. Metals are just a small step in the overall journey towards true customisation.
Efficiency, cost savings, performance improvement, the ability to repair, reduce overall investment and make replacements, minimising the logistics tail — all of these advantages afforded by AM are available to every industry that I’ve encountered.
Metal, in particular, is used in every industry. We tend to think about just finished goods that are metal. But the truth is that there is no manufacturer that doesn’t use metal in the production of its products. It means that the manufacturers of any products can potentially benefit from AM.
How would you describe the current state of additive manufacturing, and how do you see the landscape evolving in the next five years?
We’re still at the dawn of a new era. Right now people talk about Industry 4.0. I think where we’re headed is 5.0.
In the short term, we’re primarily focused on the final stages of product manufacturing. We think about an existing product and how we can manufacture it with less time, cost, weight and with fewer steps.
To a lesser degree, there’s a focus on the stage before that, which is considering and defining varying performance requirements across the part. I believe the real evolution is in the stage where we’re considering material selection, design and performance requirements. For example, we may require a part which is resistant in one area but has a greater ductility in another area.
When all those requirements and variables are considered from the conception of a product, when it’s just this synergistic effort of simultaneously evaluating and optimising each aspect of a product, then we will have fulfilled all of the potentials of additive manufacturing.
What do you see as the single biggest challenge that the AM industry needs to overcome to accelerate the adoption of the technology?
A common challenge I see is the lack of in-house expertise and capability. Through talking with a very wide range of companies, often the responsibility of creating an additive strategy lies on a person for whom it’s an additional responsibility rather than a primary responsibility.
To move the adoption of additive manufacturing faster, companies must allocate resources to internal champions.
Is there a correlation between the size of a company and the level of expertise that the company has in terms of AM?
No, it varies quite a lot. Sometimes smaller companies are able to move much faster and make decisions much quicker and therefore decide that they will pursue the competitive advantage that additive can bring with maximum speed.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily about resources as much as an ability to maximise the rate of change. And change is hard, especially if you already have a set way of doing things. Having to change it or adapt it is always a challenge.
What advice would you give to a company looking to adopt metal 3D printing but not knowing where to start?
There are a few easy criteria through which to construct a framework to assess 3D printing technologies. These include product size, product materials and performance criteria for potential parts.
All additive processes have their pros and cons for any given task. The tricky part then is to look at an existing part with certain material specifications and performance requirements and think about how we can make that part better, faster or cheaper.
Once we master all the capabilities of additive technology, we will rapidly unlock ideas about how we can improve. This original criteria list is helpful as a place to start. Also, it’s helpful to realise that whatever is driving interest in additive, it will grow with education and familiarity with what additive makes possible.
What does the future look like for MELD Manufacturing?
We will drive towards what I believe is Industry 5.0: the synthesis of the functions that are still separate today. We will continue to demonstrate what’s possible when you integrate material design with product design and allow for variation and customisation through a part.
This idea of customisation and variation in the part itself is the next place we will go and this requires joining together material science, material design, mechanical and electrical engineering. MELD specifically can help bring those together. We’ll continue to push additive manufacturing beyond the idea of just part fabrication to the ability to add wear resistance or ballistics resistance coatings or add features to customise, strengthen or repair a part. There’s still so much opportunity ahead of us.
This year, we’ll be launching another equipment machine platform to add to our line which has significantly bigger build space, measured in cubic feet rather than inches.
Furthermore, 2019 will bring a certification course for operators. We’ll be launching a Research Consortium and then obviously participating in quite a few events, speaking and exhibiting.
Finally, do you see any developments when it comes to having more women coming into the 3D printing space?
That is a great question. I recently spoke at the Women in Manufacturing event hosted by Volvo Trucks. It was such a great event that was attended by both men and women. One of the things that I loved was participating in a panel where we talked about our journey and the crooked road that everyone takes in life to end up where they’re at.
One of the things I took away from that was that women are brave, capable and courageous. They can lift each other up and don’t have to take a straight line or make sacrifices to get where they’re going.
For me, it’s extremely exciting to be a part of a brand new technology. This really is a revolution it in our lifetime and we’ll see the change that people today can’t really articulate. I think it’s wonderful to be a part of it and I hope it will show that anybody can do anything. They just have to be willing to take a chance.
To learn more about MELD Manufacturing, visit: meldmanufacturing.com