Since its founding in 2006, Lübeck-based SLM Solutions Group AG has firmly cemented its position in the additive manufacturing industry and, specifically, the industrial metal 3D printing sector. As the company’s name reveals, SLM Solutions specializes in selective laser melting technologies and it offers a broad portfolio of metal AM systems, including the SLM 125, SLM 280 Production Series, SLM 280 2.0, SLM 500 and SLM 800.
Today, the company has made inroads into a number of global industries—such as aerospace, automotive, energy, tooling, medical and dental—and has a broad international presence with over 400 employees across Germany, Austria, France, Italy, the United States, Singapore, Russia, India and China.
In March 2019, SLM Solutions announced a change to its leadership, bringing GE veteran Meddah Hadjar onto its executive board and appointing him as the company’s new CEO. Hadjar, who officially became CEO on May 1, has an in depth background in product manufacturing, engineering and—of course—additive manufacturing. Interestingly, the former General Manager of GE Additive’s Laser Products business (a position he served in for two years), has a background in aerospace and aviation, one of SLM Solutions’ key target industries and a major adopter of metal AM technologies.
We had the chance to speak to Hadjar about his new position at SLM Solutions and how the aerospace industry and applications factor into the company’s continued metal additive manufacturing development.
3dpbm: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Meddah Hadjar: I worked with General Electric for over twenty years before joining SLM Solutions. Over that time, I had many different roles, most of them in GE Aviation, but also in oil and gas, power generation, and I was the head of the laser business at GE Additive.
I’ve been with SLM Solutions for nearly two months now and it’s been a fantastic journey so far. I’m discovering the full technology profile and the production capabilities of SLM Solutions. We are now putting a plan together that will get the company back where we need to be.
3dpbm: How has your experience at GE Additive helped in the new role?
MH: GE was an early adopter of metal additive manufacturing, so I was familiar with the technology before joining their additive division, and the two years I spent there really helped me to see both the application and the technology side of the industry to understand what needs to improve to make additive mainstream and democratized. My experience in the industry has given me a full understanding of the competitive challenges in the AM market and the direction that the technology is going in.
I already know where the technology is, where the industry is, and, importantly, who the majority of users are because of my experience within the aviation industry. So coming here, to SLM Solutions, was a natural transition.
3dpbm: Are there any significant differences between the two companies?
MH: SLM Solutions is publicly traded, so there are differences in terms of how we invest in our products and who our majority investors are. Because GE Additive is a non-publicly traded company and is under the GE conglomerate, it’s operated very differently.
Looking at technology and development, there are differences as well. We see different challenges as the technologies have development teams focusing on different roadmaps and it’s been exciting to look behind the curtain of the SLM R&D department at what’s coming next.
I am happy to say that I feel really good about the SLM Solutions technology and developments.
3dpbm: And what are you main goals as CEO of SLM Solutions?
MH: I’ve spent the past two weeks meeting with investors in Frankfurt, London and the U.S. and there is a lot of eagerness surrounding the goals of the company, which we’ll share more about in August. We are definitely very focused right now on running the company differently and running it with discipline and accountability and trying to accelerate our product releases.
3dpbm: How significant is the aerospace industry for SLM Solutions’ business?
MH: My background is in aerospace—both my bachelor and master’s degrees were in aerospace, and I started working at GE Aviation, which at the time was called GE Aircraft Engines. I’m very biased towards aerospace because I love it and I understand it very well. Right now, additive is a prime technology for the aerospace industry in overcoming significant challenges the industry has in terms of performance, weight and costs.
Traditional manufacturing has a lot of limitations that inhibit the growth in the aerospace and aviation industry, and it is very costly for companies. SLM Solutions is really focused on this market because it is critical: it’s an early adopter and will unlock significant growth in the additive world. It’s a win-win.
3dpbm: Can you elaborate on how SLM Solutions’ technologies meet the stringent requirements of the aerospace industry?
MH: It is essential for us to manufacture parts for our customers that meet the requirements of the industry, in terms of material properties, fatigue, stresses and overall quality of the final part. It is also important that additively manufactured parts are at least comparable to existing parts, if not better.
If we look at the technology that we have on the market today, we produce parts using multi-laser configurations—either with two or four lasers. In both cases, machines can produce parts at a much higher quality than competing machines with single lasers. This enables us to produce parts at higher production rates and lower costs that single-laser systems.
I think there is a growing trend there: multi-laser printing is key in allowing the technology to grow and become widely adopted. For us, an important requirement is to increase our build rate and our machine reliability.
3dpbm: What specific SLM systems are most in demand for aerospace applications?
MH: In the industry today, the SLM 500 is the leader in the aerospace segment. There are other applications for which our competitors’ machines are used in aerospace, but from a productivity standpoint, our SLM 500 system is capable of printing a part using four lasers, which gives us a significant advantage.
I don’t see any other competitor doing that in the field right now. And, as we recently announced, Rolls Royce just acquired SLM 500 quad-laser systems which it will use for exploring aerospace applications.
3dpbm: Within the aerospace segment, what is the most interesting area. For instance: space, general aviation, commercial aviation, defense?
MH: For us, all of them are interesting, but some of them have different volume scales than the others. For example, if you look at general aviation and commercial aviation, they are attractive from a volume scale perspective. If you look at military or space applications, on the other hand, there is a low volume scale but there are advantages in terms of design applicability and cost reductions. On the space and military side you also see faster adoption compared to civil aviation.
3dpbm: What are the main challenges today in meeting the needs of the aerospace industry?
MH: To help our customers, we—meaning the additive industry at large—need to be improving our machines to meet the requirements and demands of a very strict industry. What I mean by that is that our machines need to have a certain degree of reliability and be significantly more industrialized compared to what is on the market today.
The other thing that can help with the challenges that the aerospace industry has is to have machines with higher productivity and larger print platforms. The range that you see today in the AM industry is limiting aerospace from adopting additive faster, so that’s a challenge for us to solve by producing machines that have a larger platforms and more productivity.
3dpbm: Where do you see AM in aerospace ten years from now?
MH: It is a very interesting technology and things are moving very quickly, but I think it’s important not to set the wrong expectations. I think we’re going to see continued growth in this market, but I think the expectation of what this will look like is still debatable.
Where we see the technology going will depend on how far we can push it. Overall, we expect to see much more integrated value streams—both vertically and horizontally—and we’re looking at software, materials, multi-laser capabilities, larger build platforms, artificial intelligence sensors…there’s a lot to be done.
The technology is still so young and needs a lot of work to get the industry to a point where it has fully automated manufacturing capabilities. Overall, I would say that in ten years the vision is to have a fully automated industry with fully autonomous production.