Alcoa Invents 3DP Materials & Processes for Aerospace End-Products

Alcoa is putting $60 million into expanding an existing R&D center to advance 3D printing (3DP) materials and processes. The new facility comes in response to a growing demand for high-performance, complex 3D-printed parts in aerospace, automotive, and medical applications. It will include new materials designed specifically for several additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, as well as a new hybrid process that combines additive and traditional metals manufacturing.

It turns out Alcoa has a 20-year history in 3DP and AM, primarily in building 3D-printed tools, molds and prototypes. Although aerospace has been a key market, the company has also been using AM for much of its rapid prototyping and product development in a variety of other areas, including oil & gas and some automotive, Rod Heiple, director of engineered products and solutions research and development, told Design News.

Alcoa has also deployed AM for end-manufacturing in aerospace. "We've been using 3D printing routinely for streamlining our manufacturing processes," said Heiple. "It's used in our aerospace market to manufacture certain jet engine parts, where it allows reductions in lead time, cost, and the number of overall manufacturing steps required to deliver high-quality end-products for engines."

Recently, the company invested $22 million in the latest Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP) technology, which strengthens the metallic structure of titanium, nickel and 3D-printed jet engine parts. Through the recent acquisition of RTI International Metals, Alcoa gained additional 3D printing capabilities in titanium and other specialty metals, as well as plastics, for the aerospace, oil & gas and medical industries.

The company's material scientists will produce proprietary aluminum, titanium and nickel powders designed specifically for 3D printing and tailored for various AM processes to produce higher-strength parts, plus meet other quality and performance requirements. Alcoa has invented close to 90% of the aluminum alloys used in aerospace today, said Heiple, and has a long history in developing metal alloys and powders for a variety of products. The new powders will be for internal use only, he said.

In addition to being a materials supplier, in the 1990s the company began making acquisitions moving it downstream toward end-products, especially aerospace engines, and today it has the ability to make about 90% of the components in a jet engine, said Heiple. Alcoa also has the industry's longest-running history of certifying aerospace components and qualifying the processes used to produce them. This testing and process control expertise will be used to overcome the challenges involved with certifying new 3D-printed parts, beginning with aerospace applications.

Alcoa also unveiled its new hybrid process called Ampliforge. This combines AM with traditional subtractive manufacturing, along with advanced materials and designs. A metal part is designed and made using 3D printing, then treated via a traditional manufacturing process such as forging. As the company has already demonstrated internally, this hybrid process can increase a part's toughness and strength, or enhance its other properties, compared to using 3DP only. Alcoa is currently piloting the new technology in its Pittsburgh and Cleveland facilities.

Using direct production of 3D-printed metal parts to make aerospace components will require a new suite of design tools, which the company will develop internally. "We invest heavily in developing proprietary software tools and models that simulate and replicate our manufacturing processes that are key to our differentiation," said Heiple. "We will do this for additive manufacturing processes, much like we do with all our other key processes." Alcoa has software and design tools to optimize a near-net shape or near-net final part, including tools that optimize that part's geometry and material characteristics, he said.

The Ampliforge process, proprietary to Alcoa, is applicable to a variety of metallics, said Heiple. "We are evaluating all the well known additive manufacturing processes out there. We are doing metallics only at this time. We want to understand how Alcoa materials interact with 3D printing equipment today, since that's an expertise we have: the interactions between materials development and processes."

The $60 million expansion is under construction at the world's largest light metals research center, the Alcoa Technical Center near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and builds on the company's existing AM capabilities in its California, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas facilities. The new facility's completion target date is the first quarter of 2016.

Ann R. Thryft is senior technology editor, materials & assembly, for Design News. She's been writing about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for 27 years, covering manufacturing materials & processes, alternative energy, and robotics. In the past, she's also written about machine vision and all kinds of communications.

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