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Q&A: Hans Langer.

HANS LANGER BEGAN STUDYING LASERS when they were just emerging from the lab. He founded EOS GmbH Electro Optical Systems in 1989, and pioneered the use of lasers to melt and solidify plastic and metal powders to form complex 3-D structures. Today as chief executive officer of EOS, he is a leading influence in the transformation of 3-D printing as a tool for manufacturing instead of prototyping.

ME: What did you want to do growing up?

H.L: My father was a flight instructor. At U, I became a glider pilot, and at 21, the youngest flight instructor in Germany. It financed my education. I became very interested in the physics of what makes an airplane fly or the weather change.

ME: You got your Ph.D. in laser physics in 1980. Why?

H.L: The laser was invented in the 1960s. When I entered university in the early 1970s, we were fascinated by the future of lasers in medicine or manufacturing. I wanted to be an expert, and wound up at the Max Planck Institute. I thought I would go into teaching. I couldn't image working for money.

ME: So what happened?

H.L: My advisor said, "There are so many young professors and so much opportunity in the laser industry. If you go there, I think you will be satisfied." He had a friend at Carl Baasel Lasertechnik, and I became employee number 11.

ME: They wanted you to sell, right?

H.L: I was hired to sell to research labs. This was my home ground. I ran into people who had problems, and I helped solve them. Sometimes, they wanted to buy a component. But when I asked what they wanted to accomplish, it turned out they really needed a different type of system. I achieved my first-year sales goal in my first three months.

ME: What got you interested in 3-D printing?

H.L: A U.S. company recruited me to start their European business, and I eventually moved to Boston for half a year. While there, I visited some labs developing stereolithography, which used lasers to solidify photopolymers in chemical solutions. I wondered what we could do if we could use real materials, such as metals, ceramics, and engineering polymers.

I started EOS in Germany to pursue that. I found my lead customer in BMW. When you have a startup, you need a customer who is willing to pay for development. We convinced BMW to fund the development of our first stereolithography system, and later our laser sintering technology for plastic and later metal powders.

ME: What were some of challenges in laser sintering powder metals?

H.L: I nearly gave up on the dream of making nonporous metal parts. We needed high laser intensity. Nothing worked until the introduction of fiber lasers about 10 years ago. All of a sudden, we could make 100 percent dense materials with no porosity.

We also discovered something we did not expect. Melting powders with a laser changed their crystalline structure. It was like laser hardening. We developed the hardest tool steel you could buy. We replaced a titanium part in a racing car powertrain that kept cracking with a stronger laser sintered part.

Suddenly, we had a huge market ahead of us. We had a process that could optimize part design, strength, and material--and offer superior properties.

ME: Design is important too, isn't it?

H.L: Design is the critical factor. For example, cast hip implants weigh 2.25 kilograms. That's heavy enough to destroy the bones around them, and eventually patients must replace their implants. When we design patient-specific optimized implants, they weigh 200 grams and last as long as three standard implants.

There are a very limited number of applications where we are competitive on cost. Instead, companies are using additive manufacturing to take big steps forward by redesigning critical parts that combine technologies and give them an advantage.

ME: Do your customers surprise you?

H.L: I can't believe what people are doing. Engineers are using advanced polymers, like PEEK, to replace metal for extreme weight reductions. We're moving into the micro world and making parts you can see only with a magnifying glass. Medical researchers are generating parts they could not make conventionally. We have lots of playgrounds to play in, and I am having a lot of fun.
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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ: ONE-ON-ONE
Author:Brown, Alan S.
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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