Interview: Building an AM Strategy

Quan Lac and Ramesh Subramanian from Siemens Energy share insights into how companies can successfully adopt 3D printing.

Siemens Energy is no stranger to additive manufacturing. For years, they leveraged the technology to build high-performance turbine parts. Earlier this year, they invested in MakerVerse, a platform for on-demand additive manufacturing. Siemens Energy plans to increase adoption even further with an organizational structure uniting the company’s different additive manufacturing teams.

This newly-formed additive manufacturing team is responsible for designing, implementing, and developing external supply chains. We spoke with Quan Lac, VP of additive manufacturing, and Ramesh Subramanian, principal expert and innovation manager, to learn where Siemens Energy found success with AM, what challenges they encountered, and how companies can get started with the technology.

First of all, what’s a typical day like for you?

Quan: As we run AM like a small business within Siemens Energy, the days can be quite varied. On any given day, I can be dealing with R&D, business development and sales, design implementation through to operational issues.

At the moment, there really isn’t a typical day for Siemens Energy Additive. We have just gone through this big reorganization. The last six months have been consumed with figuring out how the merger and integration of our AM teams will work. And as of October 2022, this new structure went live with a focus on growing our internal and external markets, but I think the first, most pressing topic in this new organization is to figure out how we will work together. What does it look and feel like? What is the culture of this team?

What changes now is, hopefully, we find better and more efficient ways of working together to be more agile and ultimately get more additive adoption into Siemens Energy and our external customers.

Ramesh: The change in the organization is front and center. I’m more from a contributing side, running a program for spare parts on demand. The main job is to maintain continuity, speed, and execution. Of course, there’s now a lot more conversation about who our new interfaces are or how we need to redirect them in a way that builds off what we were doing and helps us identify new opportunities.

How does Siemens Energy currently use additive manufacturing?

Siemens Energy used additive manufacturing for its HL class gas turbines. Photo courtesy of Siemens Energy.

Quan: There are fundamentally two entry points into additive manufacturing. There’s one entry point that is all about the end product’s performance. And in our case, gas turbines, steam turbines, and the like. And then, there is another entry point about the supply chain performance. Here, you’re trying to fix some supply chain problems, or you’re trying to improve on cost position.

I would say most of our efforts in Siemens Energy have really focused on performance-related topics. You need that tangible performance benefit and impact to move the organization in a certain direction with additive manufacturing. One of the more successful applications we’re working on is our latest large gas turbine product line, our HL product. It’s no coincidence that the engine is pushing the boundaries of what gas turbines can do, having achieved a world record for driving the most powerful simple-cycle gas power plant, and AM plays a significant role in this.

Ramesh: You might have heard in additive manufacturing the phrase “complexity for free.” The initial direction that additive manufacturing went was to build all those things you could not make by conventional manufacturing by opening up design space and making complex parts.

In addition, there’s a lot of opportunity in using additive manufacturing for spare parts, but it is a very case-by-case situation. Therefore, broad statements about business cases are generally not applicable. You have to get into the weeds and details, run through the business cases, and discuss what consolidation brings to the table. And that’s where the speed of implementation becomes a lot more complicated. Even though the part’s complexity may be low, the implementation speed is limited by how well you can coordinate as a new vendor and replace an existing supply chain with additive manufacturing.

“Even in the early days when [additive manufacturing technology] was a bit speculative, we had faith and the people with the vision for it. Having leaders that believe additive is essential. It’s those things that create momentum within the business.” – Quan Lac, VP of additive manufacturing at Siemens Energy

Ramesh, in the past you’ve been trying to drive additive manufacturing technology into the design community. Now you’re trying to drive additive into procurement processes. Which is more challenging?

Ramesh: When it comes to the design community at Siemens Energy, you’re talking about high performance. That means high expectations on part performance. The design community, which might not always be familiar with additive manufacturing, scrutinizes the quality requirements very closely. So the organizational and risk mindset of an existing gas turbine organization is one wall you hit more or less every time.

On the other side is logistics and procurement. For them, it’s more about cost, time, delivery schedule, and logistics. So there’s different organizational resistance. You have to tell them what the technology is about and how we can minimize all of their concerns compared to what they’re already familiar with.

So, in both directions, you have two types of information barriers you need to overcome. I cannot say one is more challenging than the other. Each requires different skills to communicate why AM is advantageous.

Quan: Ultimately, Siemens Energy is an engineering-led organization. I still think that the biggest hurdle we still face is convincing our design engineering community that additive is a viable technology. I see decision-making as a bit more binary on the procurement and logistics side. As long as they can see that from a sourcing point of view, there are some advantages to going additive, and there’s engineering support; there isn’t that much resistance to trying out new technology.

It’s fundamentally about getting past this first hurdle of engineering acceptance. And once you’re past that stage, it’s really about having a business case or not having a business case.

We’ve talked about supply chains a lot. One of the big selling points of AM is how it helps build supply chain resilience – how do you see AM helping?

Inside one of Siemens Energy’s 3D printing facilities. Photo courtesy of Siemens Energy.

Quan: Additive can be the perfect solution especially for emergent issues, and we’ve got great examples where we’ve done amazing things to fix supply chain problems within weeks. If you were to put that now back into the context of a typical working mode, it is more difficult to move so quickly and get the stakeholders aligned behind all decisions.

So as an actual tool to support supply chain resilience, it’s still somewhat of a concept that only works quickly when all parties are equally motivated. I think it can be more than a concept, but what we as an industry still need is the belief in the technology so that you don’t need every stakeholder sat in the room to make a decision.

Siemens Energy were early adopters of additive manufacturing, but how did you find success with technology?

Quan: I think a huge part of it is management. There was always the belief that additive is a differentiator for our business. Even in the early days when the technology was a bit speculative, we had faith and the people with the vision for it. Having leaders that believe additive is essential. It’s those things that create momentum within the business.

What specific advice could you give any company – big or small – that wants to adopt additive manufacturing?

Ramesh: I interact with small businesses that want to get into additive manufacturing. I think the biggest issue is scaling up and reaching the tipping point. It’s not just turning that one-off successful proof of concept and showing there is a potential business. It’s scaling that up to a manufacturing shop floor that already has enough volume to adopt additive manufacturing.

For advice, I would say to think of additive manufacturing as a way to add value to the part you’re making. It’s not just getting the requirements and delivering a part. It’s about realizing the differentiation between additive manufacturing and other manufacturing technologies and benefiting from things like higher quality or better design functionality.

Quan: I would like to add – don’t fall into the trap of only thinking about the additive process. You have to think about the whole value chain. If you don’t, you’re missing the big picture.

My second bit of advice would be to ensure you’re solving the problem and understanding your customer’s needs. I think for a long time, additive manufacturing has been in that kind of technology sphere, and as long as people were doing cool stuff, it was good. We’re way past that, and the industry’s credibility relies on people actually solving customer problems.

Thanks to Quan Lac and Ramesh Subramanian for joining us for the interview. You can find Quan and Ramesh on LinkedIn.