|Renishaw is a British business that has had a “solution centre” in Kitchener for since 2015 – but the company has been almost entirely under the radar. And that may be a bit surprising, because what the company is doing in Kitchener is leading-edge and virtually unique in Canada.
Internationally, Renishaw is billed as “one of the world’s leading engineering and scientific technology companies,” with more than 70 offices in 35 countries, and over 4,000 employees, world-wide.
But you have to dig down a bit in the corporate prose to discover the unique place Kitchener holds in this mix. The official word is that Renishaw, “is also a world leader in the field of additive manufacturing (also referred to as metal 3D printing).”
And if the company is a world leader in metal 3D printing, Mark Kirby is the Canadian leader, as “Additive Manufacturing Business Manager” at Renishaw Canada, a subsidiary of Renishaw PLC.
“The poster child for this is the GE fuel nozzle, a fuel nozzle in a jet engine. It was 20 plus parts that were welded and brazed together. Now, it’s printed as just two parts and then assembled.”
Kitchener is not Renishaw’s only Canadian location, but Kirby explains that “the solution centre here in Kitchener is the only solution centre in Canada.”
His facility, he says, “ is specifically designed to help industry understand the advantages of this technology and to accelerate the adoption of that technology.”
He welcomes the challenge, because, he admits, “We’ve been doing this for five years here in Canada and to begin with, nobody knew Renishaw was in metal printing.”
Of course, five years ago, there wasn’t a “solution centre” equipped like the one that exists today in Kitchener, either. Says Kirby “Our technology has advanced,” and because of that, “our customers’ technology has advanced, too.”
3D printing has become so widely known that someone with a library card can go to a local library and use the on-site 3D printer. But that application is not what Kirby is talking about, at all.
He explains, “The technology is popularly known as 3D printing. 3D printing encompasses a full range of materials; it’s everything from plastic printing, to metal printing. In Kitchener Renishaw is only involved in metal printing.”
He adds, “specifically, to give the technology its proper name, it is laser powder bed fusion. We use a laser, that’s our source of energy, the metal comes from a powder, and the powder is distributed in a bed, into a series of layers. That’s the only metal printing that Renishaw does.”
Kirby is very forthright about the pros and cons of metal 3D printing. What it doesn’t do, for example, is produce a metal product like an engine block, ready to be installed with no further refinement.
He told Exchange, “It is quite widely misunderstood, what it is you can do in metal. It’s often a disappointment for people to find that metal printing is certainly more complicated than plastic printing, because plastic printing has been around longer…. People’s expectation is that when you say metal printing it will be like, ‘Well, I have machines that cut metal, so it will be just as good as that but in the reverse instead of chewing material away it will add material, and I’ll wind up with this beautiful V6 engine.’ But the truth is you’ll end-up with a V6 engine block like you have from a casting, which you would then need machined from a company like Linamar or someone like that.”
“What would it look like if, instead of 1000 parts going into your product, only 10 went into your product? Would that free up resources in your organization?”
In fact, Kirby sees deflating false expectations as part of his job. He doesn’t want to promote Renishaw’s product on any false premises; but he does see a huge benefit to the right companies in what he does.
“There are certain things that metal printing does very well,” he says, “and if you can put all the things that metal printing does very well together, you can come up with a very compelling business case.”
And that’s where he gets excited about the Renishaw process and product.
Kirby says, simply, “We make parts more reliable by having fewer parts.”
He points to the incredible complexity of some manufacturing processes, building products involving thousands of parts. He suggests, “Imagine a product that has 4000 part numbers. There are probably a dozen companies in the Kitchener area whose bill of materials for a particular product is several hundred part numbers long, maybe a thousand part numbers.”
Kicking into full-scale promo mode, he asks, “How much of your organization’s resources are devoted to managing those thousands of parts that go into your product. What would it look like if, instead of 1000 parts going into your product, only 10 went into your product? Would that free up resources in your organization? Resources with which you could do other things?
“Let’s go from 1000 parts to 10, and I’m going to say, it’s going to be more reliable. Yes, your parts will be more complex, but there’s only 10 of them. And now imagine that those parts could change, you could have a different configuration for your product for different market, without having to invest in lots of tooling, does that sound interesting to you? Because if it does we should talk.”
There are other benefits to metal 3D printing, as well, including producing parts that are lighter in weight – and some of the work at his facility focuses on making parts lighter, while ensuring they last longer and are of a higher quality than the parts they are replacing.
He also notes that there are high performance materials that involve “very expensive raw materials, and are almost impossible to machine –3D printing enables the process.”
Kirby believes that the benefits brought to a company by implementing metal 3D printing for the right products will interest not only R&D and production staff, but the corporate accountant and Chief Financial Officer, as well.
Mark Kirby – born in the UK, and a Canadian resident since 2007 – has a very solid background in engineering. A graduate of MIT (Aero-Astro Engineering), he first worked for Rolls Royce on the HOTOL space shuttle project, and then joined his father’s company, Jet Blades, eventually serving as Managing Director, responsible for managing a design and production team engaged in producing high technology components for a global customer base.
So although he certainly knows his way around a sales pitch, he brings a world of hands-on experience in the field to his relationships with customers and prospective customers.
He also continues to have the responsibility of managing Canada’s only Renishaw Solution Centre, and that means duties ranging from evolving the business case for metal additive applications throughout Canada to managing, training and recruiting a team of applications engineers including 5-axis machining, adaptive probing and advanced metrology, as well as laser powder bed manufacture.
Processes or products?
Kirby understands that metal 3D printing is not a panacea – a remedy for every difficulty in advanced manufacturing. “It’s not an either/or process. Typically, additive parts will always need machining, in order to be functional.” That’s one issue. He also contends that there are some processes that should not be replaced by metal 3D printing; in those cases, the Renishaw “technology has no value” for that particular customer.”
He encourages potential clients to realize that “metal printing isn’t a replacement for existing processes, it is a replacement for an existing products.” In others words, producing a simple product may be better done with current methodology; but improving that product by printing it as one object instead of 10 or 100 that have to be assembled – that’s very useful, and valuable. Kirby cites an example: “The poster child for this is the GE fuel nozzle, a fuel nozzle in a jet engine. It was 20 plus parts that were welded and brazed together. Now, it’s printed as just two parts and then assembled.”
He says the benefits don’t stop at the increased efficiency, pointing out, “When you take many parts and consolidate them into one part, that part becomes more reliable, and that’s really important to a jet engine.” This might be termed, an understatement. “I can tell you that fewer parts, designed to an equivalent standard, (that’s the caveat), will automatically be more reliable, easier to assemble, because you don’t have so many parts.”
Kirby pulls back a curtain on the reality of planned obsolescence: “In the old days it was really good when parts fail because then the manufacturer would sell the original engine at a lost, and make all their money back on spares.” But that business model didn’t survive, “because the airlines got wise to that a long time ago, so now they say, we’ll just rent the engines, we’ll do power by the hour.” That’s music to their ears at Renishaw, because “Now, the engines need to be reliable, because they’re only paid when they work.”
The need to understand
Kirby realizes that the mystery that appears to surround the technology of metal 3D printing can be a barrier to building the market, because people worry about a process they feel they don’t understand.
“We’re a little bit behind here in Canada, unfortunately. We have a tonne of bright companies, we have a tonne of talent in Canada, but we’re distributed across quite a big country and everybody is just always busy.”
He actually calls for new standards and best practices to be mandated on the national and international level.
The solution centre includes a number of separate rooms, both to prevent cross-contamination of the metal powders, and also to offer privacy. “If customers wanted to develop processes that are confidential they could have access. They could basically rent a room here, later on in the development process, and use the technology without having to invest up front.”
That kind of approach is happening in Europe, says Kirby, who admits, “we’re a little bit behind here in Canada, unfortunately. We have a tonne of bright companies, we have a tonne of talent in Canada, but we’re distributed across quite a big country and everybody is just always busy”.
He’s eager to get the message out, that Renishaw is ready and willing to assist clients in developing their metal 3D printing applications. He says, “We’re kind of tucked away. People don’t know that Renishaw is right here, right in Kitchener.” But he’s out to change that, and he thinks the time is right. “This facility is unique, not just the technology, but the know-how we’ve got here. It’s not just about the machine, it’s about the know-how that goes along with it.”
“So the solution centre, the amount of experience we’ve got here – it’s a small team but very capable, so we’re a little speed boat of additive technology.”
Kirby points out an yet another advantage to metal 3D printing – the process and the product are very difficult to copy or counterfeit. “The smart customer is going to own a world class product, and the world class process by which they make that. This makes it very very difficult for someone to counterfeit it, or copy it.” He explains that in 3D printing, “we can make such complicated structures… that if you said to somebody, ‘reverse engine this’, that is really complicated.”
Don’t start from zero
For the right company, Renishaw’s solution centre can hold a lot of answers. “The idea of the solution centre is that you can walk in where people know about all of these things. They can take you through it in a structured, efficient way so you don’t always start from zero. Particularly in Canada, if we’re behind already, we sure as heck don’t want to start from zero, if anything we want to leap frog.
“So the solution centre, the amount of experience we’ve got here – it’s a small team but very capable, so we’re a little speed boat of additive technology.” Kirby acknowledges that his services are not for everyone – in fact, in his estimate, 80% of today’s manufacturers aren’t ready for metal 3D printing.
Ah, but that’s today. Tomorrow on the other hand: “Additive metal printing is not a better way of making today’s products, it’s a way of making tomorrow’s products.” He thinks that should resonate locally. “Isn’t the mantra of the KWC area that we’re all about the future, we’re not about doing more of the same? Absolutely, this technology should be looked at by anybody who wants to make something.“I hope the education turns to enlightenment. I hope to inspire people.”