Taking the path of most resistance
VBN Components – a GE Additive Arcam EBM customer since 2014 - is redefining high strength and heat and wear resistant materials for use in the toughest conditions
Ulrik Beste and Martin Nilsson - friends since their school days in a small town 50 miles northwest of Stockholm - are today are at the helm of Uppsala-based VBN Components (VBN), a fast growing company, literally at the cutting edge of materials development and additive manufacturing.
“Pushing boundaries is part of our company ethos. With a PhD in materials science and tribology, I was working as a powder metallurgist focused on cemented carbide and steel and constantly thinking about the limitations of steel production. I started discussing with a colleague Peter Vikner how to overcome those barriers. It was there we began to explore the possibilities of additive manufacturing and wear resistant materials like H13 tool steel,” says Ulrik, the company’s chief technology officer.
Since founding VBN in 2008 with Peter Vikner and Martin, the team has specialized predominantly in steel, on high strength, heat resistant materials and how to apply them to metal additive manufacturing.
Over the past 10 years, VBN has challenged a theory within additive manufacturing circles that it was impossible to produce alloys with carbon content, by developing the Vibenite® family of patented materials that range from medium to high hardness.
VBN additively manufactures extremely hard and wear resistant materials - with very high carbon content - in near-net-shape - resulting in high hardness and very high carbide content. This means that no soft machining such as sawing, drilling or milling is required.
Leading companies in the oil and gas, mining and industrial sectors turn to VBN to manufacture tools and components such as rock drill bits, gear hobs and other cutting equipment for some of the toughest operating conditions.
The first stage of production always takes place in-house, at VBN’s facilities in Uppsala. However, once customers have seen the benefits that Vibenite® materials bring to production efficiency, they have the option to license their technology and implement VBN’s patented AM-HSS™ production process for a specific application at their own premises. VBN provides consultancy to those and other customers on how to additively manufacture using their unique materials.
Additive manufacturing allows for more design freedom in creating geometries that are not possible using conventional machining technologies. It also allows VBN’s customers to choose the best material for their application, instead of a material that only suits conventional manufacturing methods.
“Our reality is not inhibited by subtractive metal cutting. Through time, forging and rolling has limited the hardness of the materials used. We start by looking at what properties would be perfect for a customer’s finished product. With that in mind, we develop new materials and additive processes with remarkable results,” adds Martin, VBN’s chief executive officer.
Additive Ecosystem – Made in Sweden
As their additive journey continued, Ulrik and Martin set about finding the best additive manufacturing technology able to cope with VBN’s materials and their unique set of properties and challenges.
Their search led them to Gothenburg and GE Additive Arcam EBM. Electron beam melting (EBM) is well suited to unique, versatile materials and remains the only commercially available technology for additively manufacturing crack prone metals and alloys.
The higher levels of carbon in tool steel increase the material’s propensity to crack during production with large temperature gradients. This makes high carbon level steels unsuitable for additive manufacturing process with cold ambient temperatures such as laser powder bed fusion (PBF).
EBM technology is able to process high crack-prone alloys due to high build temperature and achieve the design complexity, which cannot achieved with conventional production processes. The EBM’s vacuum environment is perfect for material protection and mitigates the introduction of impurities.
Since 2004, Arcam EBM machines have been integral to operations at VBN. These machines are designed to process materials that require elevated process temperatures. The build chamber of this machine is specifically designed to withstand extremely high process temperatures, up to 1100° C.
Scaling for Growth
VBN’s patented, materials such as Vibenite® 290 - currently at 72 HRC - is the hardest commercially-available steel type, perfect for cutting into other metals and other high wear applications, and Vibenite® 480 - its award-winning hybrid carbide (cemented carbide/hard metal), are in high demand.
Plans are afoot to grow the business to meet customer demand - with an eye on global expansion in the future. Of course, innovation and ongoing R&D remain a cornerstone of VBN’s business strategy, as is a continued, close working relationship with the GE Additive Arcam EBM team - as both organizations’ customers make the shift to serial additive production.
Ulrik and Martin are enthusiastic about the potential for additive technologies and are committed to continuing to push the boundaries of materials development. What’s next?
“Additive is opening up a wide range of new exciting opportunities and business models for us,” says Ulrik. “And with material know-how in our DNA, we’re already thinking about how we can start to use the periodic table in a new way,” adds Martin.