The Early Days of AM with Ben Ferrar
Join us for a sit down with our very own, Ben Ferrar, Vice President and General Manager of Carpenter Additive. In this episode we recap the early days of AM, the future of additive and how to get started in the industry.
You can read the transcript or listen to the full episode below.
Hi everyone. And welcome to the inaugural production of PowderHeads, a Carpenter Additive podcast. With each episode of PowderHeads, we'll be bringing you the minds of industry experts and delving into topics that are defining how additive manufacturing is making an impact on our world. For our premier episode, we're staying local, Kristal Kilgore, Carpenter Technology's, Content Development Manager sits down with Ben Ferrar, Vice President at Carpenter Additive. In his role since early 2019, Ben is responsible for the overall strategic leadership and operational execution of the Carpenter Additive business unit. He brings well over 10 years of experience in the metal I am industry and deep expertise in AM system and application development in this talk, Ben recapped the early days of AM and why there are so many British accents in the industry. He also chimes in with a perspective on whether AM is a digital technology or a metallurgical process, and how to get started in the industry. Thanks for listening to PowderHeads and enjoy the conversation.
Kristal Kilgore (01:09):
Thanks for joining us today Ben. Um, just what's your background. How did you get into this space? How did you get into additive?
Ben Ferrar (01:16):
So the university I went to was the University of Liverpool in the UK, and, um, we had quite an advanced program there in terms of additive manufacturing. It wasn't called additive manufacturing, then it was called rapid prototyping. Um, but we had three metal AM machines, laser selective, laser melting machines back in the early two-thousands. Um, and we would mainly be working with titanium. Um, and we'd had a couple of contracts with, you know, the likes of, um, Stryker orthopedics who's a medical device manufacturer. And so as I went through university, I saw the machines and when I finished my, my undergraduate degree, um, I did some work in the labs working on projects for Stryker orthopedics and, and it started from there.
Kristal Kilgore (02:11):
And that would explain why there's so many British accents then in this space, the CNC side, the amount of British accents we get to hear on the additive side is quite refreshing.
Ben Ferrar (02:20):
Yeah. Um, I think, you know, the UK has been, uh, you know, there was, uh, quite a few universities in the early days that did a lot for the technology, you know, loft for a university and that group moving to Nottingham university and good work in, you know, Warrick and Birmingham and Liverpool. So I think that's probably why you see quite a few of us Brits about, you know, the Germans have dominated the machine tool world, the Brits have dominated academia and then, you know, coming through on the engineering side. And now what we're seeing is the, you know, the US really taking the charge and trying to take this to scale.
Kristal Kilgore (03:03):
And so I want to dive in, there was a article recently where one of our colleagues, uh, used a quote that, um, where he said that additive is inherently viewed as a digital technology by the greater public, but it's actually deep down a metallurgical process. And I was really fascinated by that because it is true. A lot of people think of the digital side of the, um, and that it is this new age technology, but it's not that different from processes that we do understand. So I just want to kind of hear your take on that. Can you dive into that a bit deeper?
Ben Ferrar (03:35):
Yeah, I completely agree. I mean, the, the complexity of this technology is enormous, right? I mean, if you had to think of the five, most complicated phenomenon that go on, right. And you'd talk about lasers powder, you know, fluid flow and gas, gas flow management, optical, and, you know, managing that laser power and doing that all in a really controlled environment, right. That's hugely complicated. And when we refer to additive manufacturing, technology is 3d printing. I think sometimes we undermine how complicated the technology is, right? And, and so whilst over the years, we've sold the technology as a metal 3d printing technology. And it's the easiest way for the people in the industry to explain what this technology is and does to people outside the industry. Um, I think that that's probably had a negative impact because we're oversimplifying the reality of what's going on, right. The reality of what's going on is we're making lots of really tiny, tiny welds next to each other and building up a part. And that has to be validated in the same way from a materials, uh, technology perspective as any other at or any other process, um,
Kristal Kilgore (04:54):
Its not just press print.
Ben Ferrar (04:55):
Yeah. It really isn't just press print. Um, and any anyone who's, you know, anyone who has pressed print on, um, metal additive manufacturing machine will tell you, it's not as easy as just pressing print. I mean, I remember the days where we used to have to calculate our, the laser power that we wanted by actually putting in, you know, entering into the software, the number of amps that we wanted to feed the laser with. Right. You know, there's and yes, we've moved on a long way, but it doesn't change the fundamentals that this technology is hard. It's difficult. And, um, there's a lot of work to do to really get the level of repeatability that we need to have, uh, an aerospace manufacturing technology.
Kristal Kilgore (05:41):
So what do you think are some of the most common hurdles for people getting into this technology? What are some of those common questions that you come about for beginners?
Ben Ferrar (05:51):
So, I mean, I wouldn't necessarily say it's just beginners, right? There's there's people who are very, very highly respected in their industries and areas that, that fall into, um, you know, the S the sort of hype with additive manufacturing, right. That it's, it's easy. Um, and very often, right. Seeing the, seeing the, the ways in which you need to manipulate the different parameters in the technology to get all of the benefit out of it is, is challenging. Uh, I mean, I think if I was, if I was to give one piece of advice to people starting off in this technology, it would be to, you know, get a machine, do lots of builds and fail fast, because the only, the only way to learn is that you are going to meet builds that are going to fail. That's going to teach you about your designs. You are going to do things with your materials that, that are wrong. Right. You know, and, and you're better off doing that quickly than, uh, than waiting forever for the stars to align before getting a machine and getting involved in the technology.
Kristal Kilgore (07:06):
Yeah. I do think that's one of the misconceptions people, especially coming from the traditional manufacturing space are used to mature technologies. Everyone knows how a mill works, and so they might need a test run or two to get their tooling up, but then it just works. And they don't realize that, especially with powder bed machines, don't quite operate under that same premise.
Ben Ferrar (07:28):
Yeah. And look, the machines are getting, you know, the machines are so much better than they were 10 years ago, but still what, the level of complexity of the process as we introduced a new materials, as we introduced new applications, you know, that bar is continually getting higher and higher. And I think that, you know, it's, it's a learning curve, right. And, and there's been pioneers in that learning curve that have made the investment and, and done a lot of the hard learning for, um, for the rest of the industry. Right. And I think that the only way for people to really be successful with this technology is to start their learning process. Right.
Kristal Kilgore (08:11):
That's funny too, you referenced the, all the advancements that have been made in the past 10 years on that learning curve. Where do you think it's going to be in the next 10 years?
Ben Ferrar (08:19):
Yes. I mean, look, I remember 10 years ago, thinking, can you imagine where this technology's going to be in 10 years time? You know, thinking about, you know, the complete automation of powder handling and, you know, banks and banks of machines. I remember it was a conference probably around 2010 at the European space agency. And someone was saying, Oh, now today it takes, you know, one person can run 3 AM machines, right. But in, in 10 years time, you'll one person will be able to run a hundred am machines. Right? Like if, I mean, that guy would be a hero, right? The person, the person who could run a hundred AM machines would be an absolute hero because there still is a it's labor intensive, right. Turning around the machine, cleaning down the powder, all those types of things. But all those that the framework is there now, right in the building blocks are there to be able to start automating steps in the process, to be able to start having confidence about how you recycle your materials. And that's, you know, a lot of the, a lot of the work rightly so that the machine OEMs has done has been on the fundamental process, that fundamental interaction with the powder. Um, and you know, we focused a lot as an organization on what happens around the process. How does the powder get in the machine? How do you recycle the powder? How do you measure the powder in between and how do you heat treat the parts and really understanding that tool end to end process, which is what will enable us to get to the next step with these technologies?
Kristal Kilgore (10:02):
No, we don't have only one person out there running the machines, but here at the emerging technology center in Athens, it seems like a very young but engaged crew. So how do you see in this and the additive field? It seems like a lot of young people are really excited to get into manufacturing. So how is it working in that space with them?
Ben Ferrar (10:21):
Yeah, look, I think, I think it's brilliant. I think with these technologies, you have to, it helps to have an open mind. Right. I, I'm not going to pretend that I don't see additively manufactured designs and I still get that feeling now where I think, Oh, that doesn't look strong enough. It, it doesn't look right. You know, you, you see topology, optimized designs, brackets and things like that. Yeah. It just doesn't look. Right. And I imagine that, you know, the chief engineers sat within aerospace organizations that are, you know, probably two to three decades older than me. I imagine they're having a huge problem with those sorts of designs and in terms of finding them acceptable and signing them off. So that's one of the huge benefits of having an, a new technology in a relatively young workforce is they're not constrained by the ideas that maybe some of the historical engineers are constrained by. And I think that that's, what's unique about this emerging technology center, right? You've put, or we've, we've built this smack bang in the middle of our Athens Alabama campus, where we have huge amounts of mass metallurgical knowledge, you know, decades of metallurgical knowledge, to be able to guide those young artists as minds into how do we really turn this technology from a, you know, a prototyping technology into a true production technology and true production technology. I'm not talking about a few machines making, you know, hundreds, kilos of parts. I'm talking about, you know, hundreds of tons of parts, right. Which is where we need this technology to get to, to, to, to really, really see the benefits.
Kristal Kilgore (12:05):
Carpenter technology has been around for 130 years. So what does it feel like to kind of be the new kid on the block within the company for this very established company, and now they're bringing in additive and it's just different from what they've known.
Ben Ferrar (12:22):
Yeah. I mean, look right. There's, there's significant benefits to being part of an organization there's 130 years old, right. We have, we have the support of the executive team, you know, and they're really willing and, and giving us everything we need to succeed. Um, I'm, I'm really excited to how forward thinking the organization has been with its acquisition strategy. Um, I joined the business through acquisition of a company called LPW technology. And, um, I think that seeing from an executive level, the amount of engagement and time that's spent thinking about additive and building on the additive strategies is really unique, right. In a, in an organization of this size. And I think that just shows how important it is and how much potential this technology has. Um, so from an executive perspective, it's, it's, it's really good. Right? And I, I think that part of the challenge that we have is as a new technology, is that, you know, and, and this is like any new business or new technology or fast growing area, right. We have to overcome challenges quickly. That's how we grow, right. We grow from learning from our mistakes quickly and overcoming those challenges. And sometimes I find that within larger organizations that can be more difficult to stay nimble and react to the market. And that's going on, I would say that what's unique about carpenter. Additive is we've got the opportunity within the structure of carbon to technology to still keep our, to still be nimble, but with the support and backing of a, of a balance sheet of a, of a NASDAQ listed organization again, right. You think about the wider support of an organization like carpenter technology carpenter went through a transition in the last few years to, um, you know, to be, have market facing verticals. So a vertical for aerospace, a vertical for medical have a call for transport energy, consumer, and industrial. And we really benefit in additive from that market facing knowledge. And it really means that we're able to go to the next level in terms of our applications discussions that we're having with our customers, because typically these guys or the customers are already customers of, uh, uh, you know, solid form product businesses and, or our powder business. So it becomes a transition discussion. And usually we have this really talented team of applications, engineers that sit within the market verticals that they can think of the applications within our customers, um, range of products that would be good for additive before our customers think of them, which is Richard's really novel and unique. And we've, we've built upon that. Okay. And so not to the point where we're just looking at applications, but we're actually looking at, okay, well, if we rethink the way we're approaching materials in additive, what does that then mean is capable within that within our customers materials. So we've got some really exciting projects going on in our R and D department and Redding, Pennsylvania, where we're pioneering new materials that give us a specific set of properties for, for a given customer's application or challenge. It's really exciting
Kristal Kilgore (15:58):
Is there anybody else doing stuff that's super interesting in this space other than Carpenter Additive?
Ben Ferrar (16:04):
So I, With my background in the machine tool technology, I find it really interesting looking at how the technologies have developed, um, there's three or four new machine tool, um, developers working at working on machines that will either increase the productivity or increase the accuracy significantly, uh, or enable new geometries. And so I think there will be a, there'll be a momentum shift in the next couple of years away from, and some of the more traditional machine tool manufacturers. Um, and we'll start to see more Machines Dedicated for specific applications or specific materials, like, like with any growing industry, right. When it gets to assert for the first 10 years, everybody's looking at AM at it saying, well, I'm going to develop a generic machine that can, can do everything right. It's a, you know, Jack of all trades, but now we're starting to see the optimization of these machines to be able to do specific jobs. And I think that's going to be really interesting because it'll unlock either economics for a certain application or unlock geometry allowances. I'm trying not to mention names cause we work with a lot of them confidentially, but some of them confidentially, but, um, but yeah, there's some really exciting stuff on the right
Kristal Kilgore (17:29):
Along the same lines. What's the most over-hyped part of, uh, of additive manufacturing?
Ben Ferrar (17:36):
What's the, The most over-hyped part of additive manufacturing. Um, I think that when you look at additive manufacturing, right, there's, there's A lot of pictures that you see of parts that aren't true. Production parts. So we'll hear of, you know, we'll hear of things saying, Oh, this has been approved. It's a production part. Right. And then you'll find out that, Oh yeah, there's the production part is eight parts made a year, right. It's, you know, we've got atomizers that can make, you know, tons of powder a day, right. Or, you know, tens of tons, hundreds of tons, you know, and you know, when you hear of a, a one kilo application or two kilo application that they're making eight of a year, and that gets put out there as a new production application, it's like, it's frustrating. But I mean, we're starting to see a lot more, um, a lot more customers starting to overcome those qualification challenges and starting to move into production. It's really nice to see.
Kristal Kilgore (18:42):
Okay. So here's the real heavy hitter question I've been around these machines long enough to know that sometimes you just need to run a test build, and you're not necessarily doing that with the customer geometry. So what is the coolest trinket souvenir you've had printed for yourself in one of these machines?
Ben Ferrar (18:58):
So, so I, uh, I used to work for Renishaw. Um, and so my, my role that was in the design or running the design team and developing the additive machines. And when I left Renishaw, my team, um, made me a set of, uh, a small replica, additive manufacturing machines. So little metal am machines made on the am system made on the, uh, AM 250 machine, but all with, instead of having the door for where you put the build, uh, where you put the sub straight in, it was little door cut outs for the golf ball putting. So I've gotten them and I'd put them on the floor in my office at my house. And I put a golf ball into them. I think the guys did it to, uh, to take the PEs.
Kristal Kilgore (19:57):
Yeah. I test the design for themselves as well. They all have them too. Yeah. Very, very cool. Thank you for joining us today.
Ben Ferrar (20:08):
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Kristal Kilgore (20:09):
Yeah. Look forward to seeing the growth in the future. Thanks.
Thanks to Ben for our VP and General Manager for his perspective on the importance of validation in the AM industry. And his advice to those who want to get started was to get a machine and do lots of buildings and fail fast, strong takeaway from someone who's had a front row seat to the industry's growth from the beginning. If you have questions or comments about what we discussed in this podcast, send them to PowderHeads@CarpenterAdditive.com or visit our podcast page at www.CarpenterAdditive.com/PowderHeads. We're building an archive of all of our interviews there as well as additional material that provides perspective on modern day additive manufacturing. PowderHeads is managed by Carpenter Additive and its parent company Carpenter Technology, a global leader in specialty alloys for over 130 years, our goal is to help customers solve their most challenging material and process problems. Learn more at CarpenterTechnology.com. Thanks again for listening and keep building.