Dr. Johannes Homa Illustrates the Development and Production of Ceramic-Based Additive Manufacturing
Interview with Johannes Homa, CEO of Lithoz GmbH
Dr. Johannes Homa is the CEO of the Austrian company Lithoz GmbH, specializing in the development and production of ceramic materials and additive manufacturing systems.
Lithoz has developed and patented LCM (Lithography-based Ceramic Manufacturing) process, allowing production of high-performance ceramic parts. Working in ceramics allows the creation of complex, stable and high-resolution objects from different ceramics for industrial and medical applications.
AMI: Can you quickly lay out your company’s experience and involvement with additive manufacturing?
HOMA: Our involvement started more than 10 years ago because at the time we were studying with additive manufacturing. I came into the area
in 2003 so I have been familiar with additive manufacturing technology for more than 10 years now. In 2006 we started to develop a process for ceramic additive manufacturing and then it took us 4 or 5 years to develop this process. In 2011 we founded Lithoz to market the development of this technology.
AMI: It seems like most people use other materials rather than ceramics. What is the connection that you guys were pursuing between ceramics and additive?
HOMA: First of all let me put it on a bigger scale. When we speak about ceramics like we do now we’re speaking about high performance ceramics. We’re speaking about high performance ceramics that are used in very harsh environments. So high temperatures, corossive atmospheres, high mechanical stresses, basically you can see high performance ceramics are used where other materials fail.
The quality of the process must be very good when you want to be in a high performance state or if you need to use high performance ceramics because they are used where other materials fail. If they are used you have to have a very high quality, because using high performance ceramics have high requirements.
Several years ago we were trying to create these ceramic filters to use instead of metals so we were using additive manufacturing for the mold and then we were casting ceramics slurry and solidifying
it. My professor at the time asked “Why are we using the molds, why would we not do this step directly? Why are we using an indirect step? Let’s start to build the ceramics directly.” That was excellent and the starting point for ceramics. At that time no technology was available for ceramics so we simply developed this step by ourselves.
When speaking of ceramics keep in mind that you cannot cast them in a molten state like you do with metals. You have to cast the slurry because ceramics melt at a temperature higher than 2000 degrees Celsius. No material can withstand this temperature. So when we are talking of casting of ceramics you cast the so called slurry which is actually a cold slurry which is then solidified. That’s what we were using, so we were using lost mold methods. They produce the mold by additive manufacturing and then cast on the room temperature ceramics slurry which was then hardened by slightly increasing the temperature. Then we de-molded it by simply increasing the temperature even higher so the wax melted away.
AMI: Who are your customers, who are your suppliers, where do you fit in that whole chain of commercial relations?
HOMA: We’re actually similar to companies like EOS. We are a system provider. We’re selling machines and we’re selling the materials for our systems but we also make customized machines and customized materials. This is very important in the ceramic industry and our customers are production facilities in the ceramic industry as well as OEMs like from the automotive to aerospace to jewelry industries. These are the basically the three markets that OEMs are also interested. Electrical automation or mechanical engineering for textile machines, there are variable applications.
AMI: What would you consider the biggest technology challenge facing your company’s activities today?
HOMA: Actually it’s in machine development. We are aiming at bigger ability platforms but they are not yet available. We have all the process technology in-house but we need to develop new machines with bigger building envelopes. The other thing is developing slurry or the slurs for more ceramic materials. Every ceramic industry has their own even though they’re using the same material they’re using alumina or zirconia. They have their special alumina with some special doping and so on. This is one of the biggest challenges as well as to getting to completely new materials which are also ceramic based.
AMI: Over the next say 3 to 5 years could you make a prediction as to where you think the challenge or what projects you would be working on technologically?
HOMA: The next 3 to 5 years, new materials going from we are now mainly working on oxides but going to carbides and nitrides. I would say this is the base build for next several years.
AMI: Some other people have raised questions about moving from open loop to closed loop control technologies for their machines because they seem concerned about qualifying their products in a rapid way. They want to have a product that will perform rather than having to build hundreds and testing their variety and circumstances which undercuts the economic motivation for using the technology. Do you also have that problem or is that not an issue in the ceramics area?
HOMA: Actually that’s a big issue in ceramics because as I said at the beginning it’s a very interesting topic or very important. Ceramics are used where other materials fail so you have to make sure that that the quality is always at the highest level. If you have one crack or one failure in the ceramics it’s actually a lethal failure so the ceramic will break. Therefore quality is of very high importance and we’re working getting a real production machine that’s controlling everything.
AMI: As opposed to technology challenge what do you think the biggest business challenge is facing your company?
HOMA: I would say one of the issues in ceramic industry is very traditional. They are not yet used to additive manufacturing because no company has yet shown them that this exists. One of the challenges is to get that technology known to the whole ceramic industry so that they see the advantage of this technology and will install this kind of technology. The second biggest business issue in the business development would be to educate the designers that they have the freedom to design anything you want to have in ceramics. Ceramic engineers are trained to design as simply as possible. They are told no undercut, no complex structure, be as simple as possible because the simpler it is the cheaper it will get. Now we have a completely new approach and where you can design everything. Don’t only think about light weight structures, think about design for functionality. This is one of the biggest hurdles which we have to overcome, go into the heads of the designers.
AMI: Is there anything you wish that other companies that interact with your firm understood better about the nature or constraints of your business?
HOMA: I think what’s very important to know for ceramics industry is that we here at Lithoz can make customized solutions for all different areas of applications. We have the machine engineering house with the software engineering house, we have the photo-polymer chemistry in-house, ceramic scientists in house and we have application development. I think it is very important to know that we can make customized solutions and that we can support our customers in all fields of application. Not even in all fields of application but all fields of the process data.
AMI: Are there any areas of applications or any industry that you would like to understand better in terms of their constraints and challenges?
HOMA: We always want to know what the industry wants to have. We would also like to know about the aerospace and medical industries. We can only be successful if our customers are successful and we want to get products into their hands. We need to know how they are working with the products and what the final result they want to achieve is.
AMI: It seems there were some areas where you need some kind of cooperation between different companies and no single company can make it all happen by themselves. This cooperation would sort advance the adoption and commercialization of the technology. Do you find that to be true in the ceramics area?
HOMA: From our point of view there is no need for special cooperation. I just want to invite the companies to come to us and tell us what they need. What I think we need to know is what they need in 10 years, 5 years and what they need for production because that’s where we can establish a production technology for them.
AMI: With any industry that’s growing rapidly as additive manufacturing the rapid pace of innovation and development usually requires large amounts of capital. As a small firm where do you see that capital coming from and especially for smaller players in the area?
HOMA: We do look for partners especially in the biomedical applications. We know biomedical is something we cannot do alone. We are a small company and with the certification process it might be difficult for us to do it alone. On the other hand we have enough financial backing and we’re making good revenues.
AMI: You know it’s always a challenge for small businesses to raise capital, to handle all the various tasks that you have to do.
HOMA: The interesting thing is that you do not need to raise capital; the investors are coming to you and want to invest in your company. This is actually the situation we have right now. There are investors approaching us and asking for investment opportunities but currently there is no need for capital.
AMI: There is bit a good deal of discussion in the press about the problems that additive manufacturing may pose in terms of intellectual property. Have you run into any of those problems or is that at all an issue to you?
HOMA: GE acquired Morris Technologies, who was a service provider that had 9 or 10 years in metal sintering, not because they gotten cheap machines but because they were buying technology knowhow of how to run the machine, how to work with the machine, and how to design the small details. How process parameters so there are actually a lot of things additionally to this kind of intellectual property rights discussion which is appropriate for the design because design is one issue in the whole process chain. If you buy something from let’s say design of a chair or whatever with no electronic with it you can simply re-engineer it at home but there has been more concerning with quality issues and all this stuff but I think this is important as well.
AMI: We’re focusing this particular area on the whole notion of additive for aerospace applications particularly but I have had it said there is a lot of innovations that gets applied in any one area of additive manufacturing often comes from applications that are further afield, you know biomedical applications will spur some thoughts as to how they approach a knotty problem in aerospace or vice versa. Is there any particular field that you try to stay abreast of just because it has interesting new developments in it that might be applicable in your areas?
HOMA: We do but we are not discussing it publicly.
AMI: People seem to compare additives to various others the history of adoption of additive manufacturing and to the history of adoption of other technology. Is there any particular other technology that you would look to for analogies to help predict the future? Is there any other technology that makes a good and sound analogy to the development of say the ceramic additive manufacturing?
HOMA: I think if you are talking about additive manufacturing it has the potential to be an industrial revolution like the steam engine or like the labor by tailor rhythm and the computer forced industrial revolution. Additive gives new possibilities in the industrialization of mass production and you have completely new possibilities in designing your part or your product.
AMI: People are saying that they find current design software is kind of an obstacle to really designing for additive. They don’t think current design software, which is built with the notion that you use it for casting or machining or stamping or some other convectional techniques of manufacturing, is properly flexible.
HOMA: I think the software needs to be developed and it will evolve. We need to educate the designers as to the new possibilities, and then they will ask the software development companies for software for designing these new products. Then the software development will come and will be step by step by step.