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ORNL, Boeing, worlds record, 3D printing

Biggest 3D Printed Parts Keep Getting Better

The processes for 3D printing and additive manufacturing of large-scale industrial-quality parts continue to improve in quality and production-readiness. That's true of technologies for making both metal and plastic parts.

OEMs in many industries are incorporating 3D-printed end-production parts into their products, not only in the long-time leaders for this trend -- aerospace and medical -- but also in automotive. Ford, for example, was the first automotive OEM to receive and evaluate Stratasys' large-scale Infinite Build technology, based on its fused deposition modeling (FDM) thermoplastic extrusion technology. Now, Ford is testing 3D printing of large-scale car parts using this method for light-weighting and personalization, exploring applications for future production vehicles. Lighter spoilers, for example, could weigh less than half their counterparts formed by casting metal. Ford is also looking at 3D printing larger tooling and fixtures, as shown in the below video.

The AM printing technology used to 3D print the composite Strati car at IMTS 2014 is undergoing some modifications at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which co-developed the original system with Cincinnati Inc. Researchers are modifying a second Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine installed at the Department of Energy (DoE)'s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL to print taller polymer objects in sizes up to 13 ft long, 6.5 ft wide, and 8 ft tall, as well as print two materials in one object.

"With the new system, we can increase height without penalty as long as the structure is stable," Vlastimil Kunc, technical lead for polymer materials research at the MDF, told Design News. While the Strati car was printed on Cincinnati's 3-ft maximum build height, the next BAAM version after that, currently in the MDF, has a 6-foot build height, as well as length and width of 20 ft and 8 ft, respectively. But even the newest machine's 8-foot build height probably hasn't reached the limit yet, he said.

A 3D printed trim and drill tool developed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Boeing for constructing the wingskin of Boeing’s 777X passenger jet received the title of largest solid 3D printed item by Guinness World Records in 2016. (Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

The BAAM has also been used to print a trim tool for manufacturing the wing for a new Boeing passenger jet, which Guinness World Records awarded the title of largest solid 3D printed item in 2016. Other large-scale objects printed with this machine include a house, a wind turbine blade mold, and large parts for a heavy construction machine.

Previous structures were printed on the BAAM with a single material: various forms of polymers and glass or carbon short-fiber composites. But this doesn't take full advantage of additive manufacturing. "The idea behind multi-materials printing is to deposit the material you want exactly where you want it, such as using different materials for a part's surface and its internal structure," Kunc said. Operators of the new machine can switch two polymers at high throughput during a single print, as well as mix two polymers, so those materials must have somewhat compatible processing conditions, such as similar melt temperatures. Low percentages of additives or different polymers -- such as colorants, foaming agents, or recycled materials -- can also be precisely blended with these baseline polymers with high precision at 1 to 5%.

Researchers are fitting the printer with two hoppers, two dryers, and two lines to the machine's extruder. The blending mechanism is now running, and the team has designed from scratch a mechanism for rapidly switching materials. "The typical extrusion process is steady state, running a single material for long periods of time," said Kunc. "Switching materials is different because we're never at steady state. The extruder's spindle speeds up and slows down as we print, so we have to develop and try out new inputs and extrusion practices."

The team is creating a technology that prints structures that can't be made any other way, "so we hope the majority of applications will become apparent as our industrial partners become familiar with the new printer's multi-materials capability," said Kunc. "Some we have in mind are cheaper, lighter tools, jigs and fixtures; automotive; and probably aerospace, too."

The second BAAM (Big Area Additive Manufacturing) printer installed at the Department of Energy's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has the largest build envelope yet: 13 ft long, 6.5 ft wide, and 8 ft tall. It will also print two materials in one object. (Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

The new printer will also enable more rapid development of bio-derived composite materials reinforced with fibers -- such as nano- to micro-scale cellulose, bamboo, poplar, and flax -- in conjunction with the DoE Bioenergy Technologies Program, the University of Tennessee, and ORNL's Center for BioEnergy Innovation, Dr. Soydan Ozcan, senior scientist at the MDF, told Design News. The research will help solve various processing challenges, make these materials printable, and achieve desired performance.

"A large, untapped market exists for bio-derived composites that enable the expansion of the additive manufacturing industry by providing lower-cost, sustainable, biodegradable alternatives to carbon fiber-reinforced composites," said Ozcan. "These bio-derived composites compete favorably in cost and mechanical properties, as well as offer a significantly reduced carbon footprint and embodied energy."

In aerospace, Sciaky has said it's delivering to Airbus one of its huge 3D printers that make very large, high-value metal prototypes and production parts for aerospace and defense OEMs. The aircraft maker will use the Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) 110 system, with a work envelope of 5.83 x 3.92 x 5.25 ft (1778 x 1194 x 1600 mm), to produce large, structural titanium parts. This process uses wire feedstock, including Inconel, stainless steels, tantalum, niobium, and tungsten. Sciaky's range of EBAM machines can make near-net parts ranging from 8 in (203 mm) to 19 ft (5.79 m) long in only a few days, as well as smaller or larger parts depending on the application.

Some OEMs are buying, building -- or both -- their own large-scale AM technologies. For example, after several years of developing AM technologies in-house for use in jet engine parts, in 2016 GE formed the GE Additive division and announced the purchase of majority-interest stakes in Concept Laser and Arcam, suppliers of high-quality metals AM technologies. Nine months after announcing the Concept Laser buy, GE Additive unveiled the first beta machine co-developed with that company, called Additive Technology Large Area System (ATLAS), with the goal of building a scalable, laser powder-bed fusion process for making large parts and production-quality components.

Co-developed with Concept Laser, which GE acquired most of in 2016, the ATLAS (Additive Technology Large Area System) demonstrator machine is the beta form being tested by GE's industrial partners. The goal is a scalable, laser powder-bed fusion process for making large metal parts and production-quality components. The machine's production version will have a customizable and scalable build volume up to 1 meter cubed, plus multiple lasers. It's also designed for use with multiple materials, including non-reactive and reactive materials such as aluminum and titanium. (Source: GE Additive)

ATLAS' core technologies and approach are a joint effort between GE's US team and the Concept Laser team in Germany, Chris Panczyk, engineering leader for the Project ATLAS team, told Design News. "While the core technology for the architecture came from the US, the systems expertise and integration knowhow from Concept Laser was heavily leveraged and helped us create this new prototype machine. GE has a lot of user perspective and process experience, which complemented very well with Concept Laser's actual machine technology."

Since GE Additive grew out of GE Aviation, it understands the needs of aerospace, especially in terms of materials properties and feature size resolution, said Panczyk. "We want to make sure we can meet the most rigorous requirements for aerospace applications, so we can also meet the other requirements of other industries," he said. "The machine's very high mechanical precision, spot size control, and positioning of that spot size to provide density, plus feature resolution and surface finish, are all capable of meeting aerospace requirements." Other industries that can use large, complex metal parts include automotive, space, and oil & gas.

ATLAS is designed to let manufacturers of large parts customize and configure its functionality, since they need different build volumes and part sizes for their large-format applications, such as tall and thin versus short and wide. The beta machine's build volume is 1.1 x 1.1 x 0.3 m (43.3 x 43.3 x 11.8 in), while the production machine's build volume is expected to be 1 meter cubed.

Greater local control of laser spot size, position, airflow, and powder is due in large part to the machine's gantry design. "We move the print area around a larger print volume, so you don't necessarily have to trade quality for size, or feature size for speed," said Panczyk. At the November Formnext show in Frankfurt, Germany, GE showed a sample Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (LEAP) jet engine combustor liner with a 635-micron hole size, made with the ATLAS beta model.

That demo part would have required substantially more powder if made in a traditional powder bed, which fills the entire bed with powder. But printing with ATLAS saved 68%, since that machine's proprietary technology only puts powder where it's wanted in the immediate build area, said Panczyk.

The beta machine has a single 1,000-watt laser plus a 3D scanner for achieving higher print speed. Future versions will have more lasers and larger build volumes, plus better process monitoring and process analytics, said Panczyk. A more widely available production offering will be available in 2019 branded as Concept Laser, a GE Additive company, although the product line name hasn't been determined yet.

Ann R. Thryft has been writing about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for 30 years, covering manufacturing materials & processes, robotics, single-board computers, machine vision, embedded devices, and all kinds of datacom and telecom.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) pushes automation to new heights, people will perform fewer and fewer “simple tasks.” Does that mean the demand for highly technical employees will increase as the need for less-technical employees decreases? What will be the immediate and long-term effects on the overall job market? What about our privacy and is the IoT secure? These are loaded questions, but ones that are asked often. Cees Links, wireless pioneer, entrepreneur, and general manager of the Wireless Connectivity business unit in Qorvo, will address these questions, as well as expectations for IoT’s impact on society, in this ESC Boston 2018 keynote presentation, Thursday, April 19, at 1 pm.
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