In 2015, VITO transferred its laser cladding activities to the spin-off Laser Cladding Venture nv. First under the wings on its own premises, in 2017 LCV moved to Oudsbergen (Limburg, Belgium). In January 2022, LCV was acquired by SKF, a Swedish company specialised in the development, design and production of bearings, seals and lubrication systems.

Laser Cladding Venture specialises in laser cladding. This is a technology where we use a laser to melt metal powders onto an object," explains Tom De Bruyne, still CEO of LCV. "We use this technique primarily to make expensive material parts that are sensitive to wear and tear more durable. Just think of valves, extruder screws, digging teeth or drilling heads. But laser cladding also has the great advantage that it can be used to apply multiple layers on top of each other and thus engage in 3D printing. For example, you can use conventional manufacturing processes to create a simple basic structure and then use laser cladding to add the complex structures via 3D printing." This technology is quite new and has great potential. It is precisely this potential that also attracted SKF.

Twenty years ago VITO was already developing new technologies for laser processing and in the last ten years a lot of attention has been paid to laser cladding. Initially mainly as a way of carrying out repairs. But it soon became clear that this technique has more to offer. "In 'normal' welding, a lot of heat is released," Tom De Bruyne explains. "That causes certain materials to deform as soon as you start welding on them. With laser cladding you don't have that. If you traditionally weld onto the shaft of a wind turbine, for example, you risk the shaft distorting due to the heat. That is why laser cladding is so interesting, because the heat release is limited due to the high energy density and high cooling rate."

The technique was further developed functionally at VITO and it was examined where the laser cladding technology could offer added value. The conclusion was that this technology is very valuable, especially when it comes to making expensive but fragile materials wear-resistant and applying them via 3D printing.

From research at VITO to spin-off LCV

LCV was established as a spin-off at the end of 2015. LCV took over both the know-how and part of the equipment from VITO. VITO remained the main shareholder with investors LRM and AAA Fund at its side. The spin-off continued along the chosen path and ensured that the technology was ready to be brought to the market. "We have shifted our focus," says the CEO. "Whereas VITO mainly put forward the advantage of the low heat input for repair applications, we mainly focus on the higher wear resistance for preventive coatings. Experience has shown that these components require much less maintenance and you therefore also save on maintenance costs. This is a win-win-win situation on all fronts. Certainly if you can apply this on a large scale. That is exactly the challenge of laser cladding."

Laser cladding, learning from space applications

The applications of laser cladding are endless. But especially the possibility of using this technique to 3D print complex, wear-resistant and very durable parts opens up perspectives. "For example, we see an enormous acceleration in the field of 3D printing for space applications. Thanks to the developments in aerospace, we have strengthened our expertise in a number of materials such as steel, cobalt and nickel alloys with which we can print functional parts for turbines, prototype castings, drive systems for rocket engines... And thanks to these developments in aerospace, LCV now also offers non-space applications of 3D printing, such as printing blades on the shaft of an impeller pump."

A future as a substitute for hard chrome

The applications of laser cladding are still being explored. In the short time LCV has been on the map, there have been some significant achievements. "We are of course proud of the results in many sectors in different countries. For example, 30 per cent of our customers are from Belgium, and we have a sizeable customer base in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Dredging companies see the potential of laser-clad dredging cutterheads. The application of that technology to the cutter teeth alone has greatly increased the efficiency of dredging operations.

One of the opportunities for the future is certainly hydraulics. From 2024 onwards, hard chrome coatings in hydraulics will have to be phased out, and the aim is to move towards a total ban. In the meantime, we have conducted a number of long-term tests on cylinders in offshore applications and we are convinced that we can replace hard chrome coatings with our laser cladding. But our activities also focus on many machine parts, extrusion lines and pelletisers in the petrochemical industry."

CEO of a spin-off: continuously focusing on improvement and innovation as a team

Being CEO of a spin-off is quite tough. Tom De Bruyne agrees. "But not only for me, also for all other employees. The pressure is high because we are a manufacturing company with heavy investments in expensive machines. Our team now consists of a dozen employees. Engineers and operators active in contract manufacturing make up one half of that team, the other half are R&D people. They now focus mainly on developing this technology for rocket engines and for volume production."

"We follow the latest trends in laser and optics very intensively to focus the laser beam... say the hardware. We develop our production systems largely in-house. We don't build the robots ourselves - we buy the components - but we do manage the process control around them. But we have also continued to evolve in terms of materials. For example, we have developed new metallurgical processes with special laserclad materials that have even better wear resistance." This constant alertness and continuous growth process demands a lot from a CEO. "But that also makes LCV a unique company in our region: a high-tech manufacturing company that combines further technology development with scaling up production on a daily basis. The input of our fantastic team is crucial in this respect. The employees in our spin-off are very driven. They want to be part of the company's growth. They identify with the company and take a lot of responsibility not only for their own activities but also for the company itself. They also get the chance to do so. They are all motivated employees who accumulate expertise and work very hard to fulfil our mission of bringing the benefits of laser cladding to our customers. I am very grateful for that too!"

Tom De Bruyne

What is laser cladding?

Laser cladding is a technique in which a very thin layer of the base material is melted with a laser. At the same time, a metal powder is applied to the molten surface. This melts the metal powder and fuses it to the base material. This creates a metallic connection between the two components: base material and metal powder. In this way, you get high-quality coatings that cause less wear to the mechanical parts and therefore last much longer. In laser cladding, there is only a limited mixing between the added material and the underlying material. Therefore, the coating has almost the same composition as the added material. The laser treatment can be applied to both steel and light metal components.

Precisely because of all these properties, laser cladding can also be used for 3D printing in a unique way.

About SKF

SKF's mission is to be the undisputed leader in the bearing industry. They do this by offering solutions that reduce friction and CO2 emissions, while increasing machine uptime and performance. The products and services around the rotating shaft include bearings, seals, lubrication management, artificial intelligence and wireless condition monitoring. SKF is represented in more than 130 countries and has 17,000 distributors worldwide. The group's annual turnover in 2020 was SEK 74,852 million (EUR 7,261 million) and the number of employees was 40,963.  Additive manufacturing such as laser cladding will play an important role in developing tomorrow's value proposition and will support customers' application needs even better in the future. In addition, additive manufacturing makes it possible to focus more strongly on the circular economy. This further strengthens SKF's ambition to offer solutions that minimise the total carbon footprint.

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