Powder-bed machine’s journey symbolizes N.J. firm’s path toward additive manufacturing

Imperial Machine & Tool's SLM280 machine on the exhibit floor at RAPID2013 in Pittsburgh. Photo by Geoff Giordano
Imperial Machine & Tool’s SLM280 machine on the exhibit floor at RAPID 2013 in Pittsburgh. Photo by Geoff Giordano
Imperial's SLM 280 machine at its facility in June 2014. Photo courtesy of Imperial.
Imperial’s SLM 280 machine at its facility in June 2014. Photo courtesy of Imperial.

LIA industry watch logo FINALAs RAPID 2014 wraps up today in Detroit, revisiting the journey of an SLM 280 powder-bed fusion machine purchased at last year’s event by Imperial Machine & Tool of Columbia, N.J., illustrates some of the motives driving U.S. manufacturers toward additive technology.

Imperial is heavily involved in advanced manufacturing — particularly for the Department of Defense — and has spun off a 3D printing operation in nearby Pennsylvania. The company’s purchase of the SLM 280 was part of the company’s $1 million investment in additive manufacturing, says Imperial President Christian M. Joest.

AM “is obviously going to be a game-changer for U.S. manufacturing,” Joest asserts. As a 70-year old company and third generation myself in this business, I’m always interested in longevity. I want to make sure the company’s around for another generation or two.”

Typically, he says, “the company is very forward-looking; we’re not your standard machine shop that’s looking to make 5 cents on every widget that comes through here. Rather, we’re a high-end builder of equipment and components that are challenging. Our focus now is probably slightly different than many others shops like us that would buy this (equipment). I’m not nearly as focused on trying to make a buck on my 3D printer right now as others would be. There are going to be others out there who bought a machine and they want it to pay for itself as soon as it can and keep it paying for itself. That is not my focus.”

Taking the long view Joest’s goal is to “develop this technology — be leaders in the technology development and everything that goes along with it, whether it be training or materials development. We want to hold the hands of our customers as we introduce this new technology so they don’t get bitten. And then everything will follow after that; a rising tide will start to float all boats. The more customers I can get to accept the technology … the better off we all will be.”

A longtime major player in advanced manufacturing techniques, Imperial has decades of experience in multi-axis machining, multi-step processes, rough machining and welding. “We do a lot of military work and a lot of very challenging tech work in unusual materials as well as unusual applications,” Joest explains. “I was always keeping an eye out on new technologies. Rather than just expand our current capabilities — we’re a successful company that generally stays pretty busy — I saw additive manufacturing as an opportunity for us to re-engage with our customers, to have new conversations with folks we’ve been talking to for many years. And for that it has been outstanding. We have engaged with every one of our existing customers, most of all of whom have welcomed this technology with open arms; of course, it’s early in the game.”

But can a well-established company changes gears adequately to get into the game? Joest says his company’s history is a significant advantage.

“We’re already Prime Contractors for the U.S. government. We already know what it takes to meet their contracting requirements. We already know what it takes to go through the quality process. It is not a big step for us; we’re not just an additive manufacturing company that does that and doesn’t know how to do anything else in the world. We’re a manufacturing company that now understands how to additively manufacture pieces and inject that into the production sequence.”

Of late, Imperial has been in conversations with the Navy not only on using AM to field spare parts but also how to set up AM operations. Developing new materials suitable for AM, particularly high-heat materials, is also a priority.

As other experts have noted, most recently at LIA’s sixth-annual Lasers for Manufacturing Workshop in Houston in March, Joest knows that AM’s advancement relies on far more than just the machines. It means powders for additive processes must keep pace — as must the skills required of a 21st-century workforce.

Acknowledging that “lasers are our weakness,” Joest fully expects to engage more at LIA events in the quest to help lead U.S. manufacturing to greater heights. “We will be trying to find out as much as we can about lasers and who the laser people are who can aid us in reaching some of our goals — one of which would require us to understand lasers very, very, very in-depth. I expect to need laser talent either that I’ve contracted for or that I hire.”

For those with the same motives, the fourth-annual Lasers for Manufacturing Event from Sept. 23-24 in Schaumburg, Ill., will be a perfect opportunity to network with top-tier laser equipment suppliers and practitioners in many industries. And for the first time, LIA is holding a Lasers for Manufacturing Summit on Sept. 22 at the LME venue to provide a more intimate AM overview to executives.

Geoff Giordano, veteran editor and art director for newspapers and magazines, has been an editor and reporter for LIA since 2009. Contact him with comments or suggestions at ggiordano@lia.org.