Usually, we're telling you about bigger 3D printer build volumes, not smaller ones. But this is a bit different. Optomec has taken a highly sophisticated 3D printing process for metals and made it available in a smaller machine.
Engineers have been producing metal components, not just prototypes, for several years using Optomec's version of selective laser sintering (SLS), which the company calls LENS (Laser Engineered Net Shaping). The components built have been relatively large, with a process work envelope of 900 mm x 1,500 mm x 900 mm (35.43 inch x 59.0 inch x 35.43 inch) for the company's largest machine, the 850-R. That one deposits material such as standard steels, titanium, and nickel alloys at up to 500 g/hr (1.1 lb/hr).
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Optomec's original, large 850-R system is used for making final production parts or prototypes, and repairing metallic components, such as this casing. (Source: Optomec)
Optomec says that for many applications the mechanical properties of components built with the process are equivalent to those of wrought metals. For example, independent testing has shown that the fatigue strength of Ti 6-4 matches the fatigue strength of wrought annealed material. Yield strength and tensile strength of the 3D-printed material were actually better at 973 MPa and 1077 MPa versus 834 MPa and 973 MPa, respectively, for Ti-6Al-4V, a titanium/aluminum alloy. Among other things, Ti-6Al-4V alloys are used for structural components on commercial aircraft.
Originally developed at Sandia National Laboratories, the LENS process has been used for prototyping and manufacturing military and aerospace components, as well as medical instruments and implants. It can be used for adding layers of metals to an existing component to improve its wear resistance, or add features to large cast components, such as a flange or boss. The process has also been optimized for repairing military and aerospace metallic components, such as restoring their inner diameters or inside blind holes. (Watch a video demonstrating the process below.)
The new machine, the LENS 450, is built with the same basic technology, but it has a much smaller process work envelope of 100 mm x 100 mm x 100 mm (3.94 inch x 3.94 inch x 3.94 inch). It also has a much slower (about 6.25 times slower) maximum deposition rate of 80 g/hr (2.82 oz/hr). It comes with a 400W fiber laser, a motion control system, and proprietary process control and part preparation software. The machine prints titanium, stainless steel, cobalt chrome, and superalloys.
So why would anyone want one of these? Interestingly, Optomec says it has developed this model to help proliferate the use of metals in additive manufacturing. The company is aiming the printer at university mechanical and materials engineering departments and labs, for the purpose of training the next generation of engineers in AM, and specifically, AM with metals.
The first machine will be delivered to the University of Pittsburgh's department of mechanical engineering and materials science, for use in the department's advanced manufacturing program. The university is a member of the federally sponsored National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). Wouldn't it be interesting if this became a trend?
What I found more compelling was the concept of self-assembly and self-reconfiguration, rather than the lego-like MIT digital materials in the link I gave before: http://cba.mit.edu/docs/papers/06.09.digital_materials.pdf Was this the MIT digital materials you referred to? If not, can you tell us what you were referring to?
NadineJ -- I think the "more compelling" concept is a matter of timeline. The MIT papers do like digital assembly similar to Lego blocks. An article in Wired in recent months discussed a method being used to construct skyscrapers in China in two weeks using a modular approach.
We have seen the open software approach be applied to hardware in the Arduino and BeagleBone and the modular shields we stack upon them. Xerox PARC has done work on 3D printing of circuit boards. These concepts are making traction in the marketplace already.
Ann's earlier article http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=261138 seems to be more futuristic where objects act like (maybe become?) living organisms and adapt their shape and purpose to the environmental need at hand. Science fiction such as the Transformers movies always inspires invention of the future.
Nadine, I googled "MIT digital materials" and came up with several links that seem to be talking about LEGO-like "printing", although it looks more like assembly to me. At the micron level described in a 2009 paper http://cba.mit.edu/docs/papers/06.09.digital_materials.pdf one might be able to call this "digital assembly," but at larger scales that terms seems misleading. Is this what you were referring to?
In any case, it seems to be related to self-assembled and self-reconfigurable devices and materials, on several scales, which DN covered here: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=261138 and which I find much more compelling.
It's important to remember that the technology for SLS with metals and with plastic is not the same, so it's not a matter of a 3D printer company using one line of printers for either materials set. It's also a really different expertise set. So far, plastic-based companies like Stratasys are partnering with metals-based companies like Optomec, and 3D Systems has bought the expertise.
Alcoa has unveiled a new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet, aimed especially at automotive, industrial, and packaging applications. If all its claims are true, this is a major breakthrough, and may convince more automotive engineers to use aluminum.
NASA has just installed a giant robot to help in its research on composite aerospace materials, like those used for the Orion spacecraft. The agency wants to shave the time it takes to get composites through design, test, and manufacturing stages.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with architects Foster + Partners to test the possibility of using lunar regolith, or moon rocks, and 3D printing to make structures for use on the moon. A new video shows some cool animations of a hypothetical lunar mission that carries out this vision.
If there's one thing 3D printing's good for, it's customization. New Balance Athletic Shoe Company has begun using 3D printing to make customized spike plates for its running shoes made for members of its Team New Balance runners. They provide better traction and shave off a tiny bit of weight.
Two teams, one based in the US and one in Europe, have 3D printed space-worthy support structures for satellite antenna arrays. These aren't prototypes: they're fully functioning antenna supports that will operate while exposed to the harsh temperatures and radiation of outer space.
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