JEOL on bringing its electron beam melting 3D printing technology to the Americas

For more than 70 years, Japanese firm JEOL has been developing instruments in the field of electron microscopy. For 60 years it has had a presence in the United States through its JEOL USA subsistence. And for 50 years the company has been a leading player in e-beam lithography.

In more recent times, the company has been leaning on this extensive expertise and experience as it turned its hand to metal additive manufacturing. At 3D Printing Tokyo in 2017, JEOL was showcasing 3D printed copper parts produced with an electron beam melting (EBM) additive manufacturing (AM) technology, with promises that a machine would soon be ready for launch in the western world.

At Formnext last year, JEOL USA announced the European launch of its EBM technology, following suit with its introduction into the Americas at RAPID + TCT† Throughout the event in Detroit, JEOL was welcoming visitors onto its booth to survey the JAM 5200EBM machine and the parts it is capable of producing as it presented itself to the rest of the AM industry or at least the ones it doesn’t know yet.

“Our DNA is building electron beam instruments,” JEOL USA President Robert Pohorenec began. “At this point, the company has three separate divisions, three separate sectors. We make scientific instruments, a lot of them are electron beam based, focused ion beam based, but also nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectrometry, so a pretty broad portfolio. It’s about 60% of our business. That portion of our portfolio is metrology instruments and analytical instruments. A lot of our customers for those products are all around here.

“Another big part of our business is medical equipment – ​​that’s about 12% – but the biggest portion of our businesses in terms of growth is our industrial equipment. And that consists of our first attempt at taking an electron beam into an industrial manufacturing situation, e-beam lithography, using electron beam technology that we had developed 40 years prior to manufacture semiconductor devices. Today, that’s a big part of our business. And this is the second attempt, the second industrial application if you will.”

JEOL’s entry into additive manufacturing started via the Technology Research Association for Future Additive Manufacturing (TRAFAM) group set up by the Japanese government – ​​other members of this organization include Toshiba, Matsuura, Nikon, Toyota and Mitsubishi. Starting in 2014, a research project applying JEOL’s electron beam expertise to an EBM system was undertaken, with the company eventually commercializing the 3D printing technology.

The capabilities of that technology within the JAM 5200EBM frame are explained by SE Product Manager Zane Marek.

“Because of our historical technology, we’re able to get high vacuum up there in the minus five-pascal range, so that gives us 1500 hours lifetime. For production, that’s especially important, so they can go a really long time. Then we also have a unique pre-scan strategy. There’s no helium required, there’s no external gas required and there are still no smoke events on our system. The no smoke events is because of this patent V shield technology and also our pre-scan strategy. Without using helium – which is a natural resource, they’re not making any more of it – it’s greener on our side, more sustainable. There’s no X/Y, just a Z stage that drops down, powder bed fusion style. We can do up to 100 milliamps of beam current of the material can sustain it and build rates can up to about 100 CC per hour.”

The build volume is 250 (Dia.) x 400 mm (H), while the electron beam output is a maximum of 6kW and the chamber pressure during melting is 0.01 Pa or lower. With this process, JEOL is currently capable of printing in Ti64, pure copper and Inconel 718, with work ongoing in-house to add more options. JEOL is, however, looking for partners in the US to help with recipe development, and is also willing to be open on software and post-processing options, acknowledging that most customers will have preferred solutions.

“It’s been our philosophy across all our product lines to try to be as agnostic as we can, so that users can have the input into what they want to use,” Pohorenec said. “We’re that way on the metrology and the analytical side. We’re not going to tell people what the best powder is, but we do want a shot, making sure we understand what it is and help characterize it.”

In its support for the products it gradually gets out into the field, JEOL is in the process of building out its team to service and assist its customer base, with engineers local to customers set to be trained up, while existing staff are routinely sent back and forth between Tokyo to be trained at the parent company. There are also plans to establish demonstration facilities in the US and Europe within the next 12 months, with a capacity of ten machines being manufactured in the same timeframe. Then, the company will adhere to the demand for the machine before pushing ahead with the next phase of production.

“Making the machine is one thing, you have to make them successful with it. And that’s really what we think we can contribute in this business,” Pohorenec noted.

Back in Japan, there is currently an installed base of four machines, supported by a core team of 30 people responsible for development and applications. That number gets expanded to between 70-80 people when the supply chain and services personnel are taken into account, with a similar set-up likely in the US, albeit with a smaller core team of around ten people.

Hironobu Manabe, General Manager of Advanced & Fundamental Technology Center at JEOL, leads that group back in Japan and has coordinated expansions into the European and North American markets. As he sets up the service network in the US to support the North American expansion, it is his vision to permeate the satellite, rocket and solar industries with a couple of market-leading names touted as desirable suitors. Pohorenec, who will lead efforts in the Americas, had his own thoughts.

“I see a lot of potential in the US market, in Canada as well, potentially even in Brazil,” he said. “We have a long history of partnering with other manufacturers and other people that are second-tier suppliers. Don’t be too surprised if you see us stretching out a little bit in those directions over time. We focus on electron beam melting, there is a lot for this business, other than an electron beam column, there’s a lot of opportunities to build a bigger customer base, maybe share some of the power of our brand with others in that area, and maybe take advantage of somebody else’s brand as well. Hard to say what direction we’ll go, but in every other product line we have, we’ve built strong relationships with partner companies. Some of it says JEOL on it and some of it doesn’t. Anything’s possible.”

With that mindset, the company pitched up at its first North American additive manufacturing trade show, but not its last. Like its fellow exhibitors spread across the hall, JEOL spoke of the potential sustainability gains of its technology, how it can simplify supply chains and how it can shorten lead times, but unlike most of the 400 market players it shared a room with for three days , it has one big challenge to overcome before it can prove any of that.

“We don’t have a customer yet,” Pohorenec finished. “You walk around here and everybody’s having conversations with friends. It’s a new business. I’ve run into, other than some consultants we’ve used, one person I knew from outside of this industry. So, it’s all brand new. It’s a pretty exciting time.”

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