Additive Manufacturing: 3D Printing a Metal Shift Knob for Faster Cooling

When Nathan Huber moved to Arizona from Colorado to join PADT he learned a lot, and one of the things he learned fast was that the inside of cars get very hot in the summer here.  In fact, the shift knob on his car was untouchable in July.  This coincided with his learning more about metal 3D Printing and an idea occurred, what about 3D Printing a metal shift knob designed to cool off faster, and that looked cool.  Oh, and use ANSYS to drive the design.

He blogged about it before (here and here), and Additive Manufacturing online picked up the story and added to it on their blog post “3D Printing a Metal Shift Knob for Faster Cooling”  Check it out, they did a nice job of explaining what we did and how Nathan used several of our tools like ANSYS Mechanical and our Concept Laser metal system to realize the design.

 

Installing a Metal 3D Printer: Part 2 (Facilities)

Download all 5 parts of this series as a single PDF here.

This is part 2 of a 5-part series on the lessons we learned installing our first Metal 3D printer, a Concept Laser MLab Cusing R. Please read the first post if you haven’t already, where I listed all the different equipment (in addition to the 3D printer itself) one needs to run this process.

A reminder at the outset: these posts are meant to be informative only, to give you a sense of what questions you need to ask and get answers to. Specific requirements will vary by equipment and your site specific needs.

1. Electrical

Most metal 3D printers, including the Concept Laser machines, are manufactured in Europe and have electrical requirements that differ from what most American machine shops are setup for (which is the scope of this section). If you have installed 230 V European equipment before and know what L-N and PE stand for and how they differ between European and American systems, you can skip this section. If not, read on.

There are two key items here one needs to be aware of: first of course is the fact that these pieces of equipment typically run on single-phase 230 V (3-phase 400V for the very large machines like Concept Laser’s XLine 2000R) as opposed to the standard 110V. Secondly, and this is easier to miss, European electrical connections have one “hot” line (L) for a single-phase, one Neutral line (N) and one Protected Earth (PE) – this is different from the US standard where you have 2 “hot” lines and 1 ground. The reason for these differences and how to address them electrically is beyond the scope of this post (or my understanding), but the main point is to have an electrician familiar with European codes review this early on. A dedicated custom transformer for all your European 230V equipment is one solution, and the one we employed here at PADT, as shown in Figure 1. (I rarely give shout-outs, but our experience with Fargo Electric on procuring a custom, affordable transformer was one of the best transactions I have ever had.)

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Fig 1. Dedicated transformer in use for PADT’s metal 3D printer. Also note the L-N-PE connections and the plugs used on the different equipment.

2. Inert Gas

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Fig 2. Nitrogen line running to our MLab

Laser melting of powder metals needs to be conducted in an inert atmosphere. Most suppliers recommend using Argon for Aluminum and Titanium alloys, but that Nitrogen is fine for the non-reactive alloys such as steel, Inconel and Cobalt-Chrome alloys. At PADT, we leveraged our existing nitrogen generator and added an additional line running to our metal 3D printer (Figure 2). Before doing this, you need to add up all the consumption rates for the machines (at their peaks) to make sure you don’t exceed the generator’s capabilities. It is a good idea to demarcate space for Argon cylinders should you need them at a later stage.

3. ESD Mats or Floors (for Reactive Metals)

As we will see in the next blog post in this series, avoiding charge dissipation into metal powder is a key safety requirement for operating metal 3D printers – this is achieved through a range of strategies like ESD (Electro Static Discharge) armbands, grounding ElgiloyHastelloy C4 wires etc. If you plan on running reactive metals and especially if you expect to have many operators, an ESD coated floor with ESD shoes or boot straps, along with an ESD meter (like the one Honeywell installed at their facility) is a good strategy. From personal experience with ESD boot straps, I know these can be fickle in passing an ESD meter test. Connecting the ESD meter to the entryway door so entry is only provided after passing the test is one way to ensure only those with functioning straps enter the workspace. For those without this strategy, grounded ESD mats and ESD armbands connected to the machine are also alternative strategies which I will discuss in more detail in the next post. From a facilities standpoint, if you do want to enable ESD coated floors, boot straps and ESD meters, you need to plan this early, which is why I have included it here.

4. Water

Fig 3. Water column in a wet separator – this has to be cleaned out and replenished frequently

Access to running water is essential for cleaning the wet separator (vacuum) that is used for sucking up fugitive powder – ideally the water source is near your liquid waste storage so you can clean out the wet separator and pour the powder-contaminated water into storage. Alternatively, you can also use a garden sprayer for smaller machines, like we do at PADT. Fill up the sprayer with water and use it to rinse out the wet separator right on top of the waste storage bin.

Another reason you need access to water is to passivate the filter. While not all OEMs recommend water passivation, Concept Laser does and we find it to be very user friendly, as I demonstrate in the video below (video starts 2:58 in, which is when I discuss filter passivation with water).

 5. Access Control

It is important to restrict access to your metal AM laboratory through badge scanning or key pad entry to those who are trained on using the machine, and your building facilities team. It also helps to provide as much visibility through glass windows so that folks that are entering can study what activity is in progress before entering.

Fig 4. Door lock with combination to restrict access, window to provide visibility

6. Structure & Ventilation

Here I move into the subjective (gray area) domain – I request anyone who has more specific information on these matters to kindly share them with me for inclusion in this post (with due credit). I have heard anecdotally that in some places the city has required the supplier to install blast walls and other explosion resistant infrastructure – yet others have not required such infrastructure (including ours). I am not well informed in this space and can only emphasize the need to have these discussions out in the open in the early stage of planning your facility and ask your city’s building safety person if the walls you have planned (or already have installed) are adequate or not – this is likely to be a function of the amount and reactivity of the powder you are handling, proximity to vulnerable areas, human occupancy and other concerns. With regard to ventilation, the more open the space the better (these machines can heat up a small, closed room) – at the same time the space needs to be sealed off from the elements including wind. I know this too is a subjective matter, so discussions with city representatives are the best way to go.

Please send any of your comments, questions or suggestions for improvement to info@padtinc.com, citing this blog post, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

And now go on to PART 3a (SAFETY)

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Gregg Rand at PADT, Martin Perez (City of Phoenix) and Dave Tallman (City of Tempe), and engineers at Concept Laser Inc.

Installing a Metal 3D Printer: Part 1 (Equipment)

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Fig 1. Concept Laser MLab Cusing R in PADT’s Metal 3D Printing Lab

Download all 5 parts of this series as a single PDF here.

What equipment does one need for metal 3D printing? 

This is the first in a five-part series that brings together the different lessons we learned installing our first metal printer, a Concept Laser MLab Cusing R at PADT, shown in Figure 1. In this post I list the different equipment needed to enable metal 3D printing end-to-end, along with a brief explanation of its purpose. In subsequent posts, I deal with (2) Facilities, (3) Safety, (4) Environmental & (5) Housekeeping aspects of the technology. I hope this information adds to the conversation in a meaningful way and help those who are thinking about, or in the process of installing a metal 3D printer.

The specifics of some of this information will vary depending on the equipment and materials you handle, but my hope is the themes covered here give you a sense of what is involved in installing a metal 3D printer to aid in your preparation for doing the same and for having good discussions with your equipment supplier to ensure these are addressed at a minimum.

One way to look at classifying the equipment needed (beyond the obvious metal 3D printer!) is by its purpose, and I do so here by dividing it into two broad categories: Ancillary Equipment (necessary to the printing itself) and Post-Processing Equipment (focused on the part).

At the outset, it is crucial that the difference between reactive and non-reactive metal alloys be comprehended since a lot of the use of the equipment differs depending on what kind of metal alloy is being used. A previous blog post addressed these differences and these terms will be used in the following sections.

1. Ancillary Equipment

1.1 Wet Separator

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Fig 2. Wet separator used to vacuum fugitive powder

The wet separator is essentially a vacuum cleaner that is designed to safely vacuum stray (“fugitive”) metal powders that cannot be cleaned up any other way. When dealing with powders, the typical recommendation is to first brush whatever you can into the overflow bin so you can reuse it. The next step is to try and wipe up powder with a moist lint-free cloth (to be covered in the housekeeping post). The wet separator has a water column that passivates the metal powder and renders it non-reactive to allow for easier disposal (to be covered in the environmental post). Wet separators require a significant amount of maintenance, particularly when dealing with reactive metals like Titanium and Aluminum alloys, where the supplier recommends the wet separator be cleaned out on a daily basis. At least one company has developed a kit to help with wet separator cleaning – which gives you an indication of how significant of an issue this is. Most suppliers provide a wet separator along with their equipment.

1.2 Glove Box

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Fig 3. Glove box used to interact with the build chamber in a safe manner, and in an inert atmosphere for reactive metals

A glove box is a useful piece of equipment for dealing with reactive metals in particular. The glove box allows an operator to manage all the powder handling in the build chamber to be done in a closed environment. For non-reactive metals this is not a necessary piece of equipment but it is highly recommended for reactive metals. The glove box when used in concert with reactive metals will allow for inert gas flushing out of oxygen to low PPM levels prior to operator intervention, and also includes grounding connections for the box to the machine. The nice thing about having a glove box is it reduces the amount of time you need to have a respirator on by allowing you to add powder and unpack builds in a closed environment. The glove box may also be integrated into the machine itself – ours is a stand alone device on wheels that we roll over to the machine when we need it.

1.3 Powder Sieve

Unless you plan on disposing all the powder in each build after it is completed, you need a sieve to separate out the larger particles and contaminants from the powder you wish to reuse in subsequent builds. The sieves are also typically provided with the machine and can be enabled with inerting capability (as shown in Fig 4 on the left, or as shown on the right, come as a small desktop unit that can sieve about 3-5 lbs of powder at a time). While the sieve on the left may be used for reactive metal sieving, it is uncertain if one can safely use the desktop sieve for the same, even with grounding the table it sits on and the operator – this is a gray area and I am keen to hear thoughts on this from those that have the expertise/experience in this space.

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Fig 4. Mechanical sieving: (left) for large quantity sieving, (right) tabletop model for smaller quantities

1.4 Ultrasonic Cleaner

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Fig 5. Ultrasonic cleaner used to help isolate metal powder trapped inside parts and supports

The purpose of the ultrasonic cleaner is to remove as much trapped powder as possible before the part and the build plate are subjected to any post-processing – this is to minimize the risk of trapped powder getting airborne during downstream processes – which cannot be completely eliminated (which is why PPE should be used all the way through till the final part is in hand after cleaning).

The Ultrasonic cleaner is used twice: first before the parts are removed from the build plate, and again after they are removed. Sometimes I will even use it a third time after all supports have been removed, if the part has internal p. I typically use the 40 kHz and 60 C temperature setting but have not sought to further optimize the parameters at this time.

2. Post-Processing Equipment

2.1 Furnace

Fig 6. Radiation heating furnace with inert gas capability. The Nabertherm 7/H has a maximum temperature of 1280 C, suitable for stress relief.

The purpose of the furnace is to relieve residual stresses built in the parts prior to removing them from the build plate. So this is the first step after the parts and the plate come out of the ultrasonic cleaner. We use a furnace that allows for nitrogen or argon flushing, and place our parts wrapped in stainless steel foil in a gas box. Instructions for heat treatment (time and temperature profile) are typically provided on the technical specifications that come with the material. Metals like stainless steel can be stress relieved in a nitrogen atmosphere but Inconels and Ti6Al4V for example require higher temperatures of between 800-1000 C and argon atmospheres – so you need to be setup for both gases if you are considering running more than 1 metal in your operation.

2.2 Support Removal

All parts are connected to the build plate by between 3-5mm of supports that need to be removed. This is a two step process: the first step involves removing the parts with supports off the build plate, and this is most commonly done with a table saw or a wire EDM. At PADT, we stumbled upon a third way to do this, using an oscillating hand tool and a carbide blade – which works well for small parts (<3″ in X-Y space). It is important to always wear gloves and a supplier recommended (N95 or higher) respirator while removing supports since there could be trapped powder in the supports that was not removed with the Ultrasonic cleaner. The second step is to use hand tools to pry out the supports from the part – this is why it is important to design supports that have weak mechanical connections to the part itself – ideally you can tear them off with hand tools like a perforated sheet of paper [Video below courtesy Bob Baker at PADT, Inc].

2.3 Die Grinder

Fig 7. Die grinder used for removing burrs at the support interfaces on the part

A carbide die grinder is then used to grind away the support-model interface – for tiny parts, this can be achieved with a hand file as well for some parts but is easier to do with a die grinder. For large parts, this need can be eliminated by designing in regions that are to be machined later and aligning these regions with supported regions, so as to reduce the need for finishing on these surfaces.

2.4 Face Milling

This may come as a bit of a surprise, but you also need some way of replenishing the build plates after use so you can re-use the plates – this involves using a face milling technique to remove all the remnant supports on the build plate and take off a thin slice at the top of the build plate, while retaining flatness to within 100 microns (0.004″). Having this capability in-house will greatly speed-up your ability to start successive prints and reduce the need to keep large inventories of build plates [Video below courtesy Bob Baker at PADT, Inc].

2.5 Surface Finishing

A combination of techniques can be used for surface finishing. At a minimum, you must have the ability to do glass bead blasting – this is both for the printed parts, but also for the build plate itself – a bead blasted finish is recommended to improve the adhesion of the first layer of powder to the build plate.

Fig 8. (left) Bead blaster and (right) post-processed build plates, ready for use again

2.6 Other Capabilities

The list above is what I would consider a minimum list of capabilities one needs to get started in metal 3D printing, but is not comprehensive and does not include facility, safety, environmental and housekeeping requirements which I will cover in future posts. Additional CNC equipment for machining metal AM parts, heat treatment and HIP, and superior surface finishing and cleaning techniques are often called upon for metal AM production, but these are highly dependent on application and part design, which is why I have left them out of the above list.

Move on to part 2 of this series where I discuss the facilities requirements for metal 3D printing (electrical, inert gas etc.). Did I miss anything or do you have a better way of doing the things described above? Please send your thoughts to info@padtinc.com, citing this blog post, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Acknowledgements:
Garrett Garner at Concept Laser, Inc and Bob Baker at PADT, Inc. for their insight and expertise that helped us select and bring in the above capabilities at PADT.

CLICK HERE for part 2

Tour ConceptLaser’s Metal 3D Printing lab at AeroDef

Attending AeroDef this year in Fort Worth? Make sure you register to tour Concept Laser on March 6th before AeroDef! You’ll hear an update on the GE acquisition and presentations on customer applications and machine safety. Registration ends February 24th, 2017, so don’t miss this opportunity!

Register now: http://aerodefevent.com/sessions/concept-laser-tour/

Speed, superior quality monitoring, and an open architecture that enables innovation – that is what makes Concept Laser’s Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLM) technology a leader in the metal additive manufacturing industry. Come and hear about how Concept Laser is investing to bring you innovation through new products and processes that will lead to revenue-generating opportunities for your business.

The Tour is March 6th from 8:30am to 11:30pm and includes round trip transportation from the conference and more.

What you will see on the tour:

  • Direct Metal Laser Melting
  • In-situ Quality Assurance
  • Best-in-class safety guidelines when interacting with reactive and non-reactive materials
3D Printed Exhaust Gas Probe (RSC Engineering and Concept Laser Inc.)
Titanium implant leveraging lattice designs (Concept Laser)

Metal 3D Printing a Shift Knob

I have always had an issue with leaving well enough alone since the day I bought my Subaru. I have altered everything from the crank pulley to the exhaust, the wheels and tires to the steering wheel. I’ve even 3D printed parts for my roof rack to increase its functionality. One of the things that I have altered multiple times has been the shift knob. It’s something that I use every time and all the time when I am driving my car, as it is equipped with a good ol’ manual transmission, a feature that is unfortunately lost on most cars in this day and age.

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I have had plastic shift knobs, a solid steel spherical shift knob, a black shift knob, a white shift knob, and of course some weird factory equipment shift knob that came with the car. What I have yet to have is a 3D printed shift knob. For this project, not any old plastic will do, so with the help of Concept Laser, I’m going straight for some glorious Remanium Star CL!

One of the great things about metal 3D printing is that during the design process, I was not bound by the traditional need for a staple of design engineering, Design For Manufacturing (DFM). The metal 3D printer uses a powder bed which is drawn over the build plate and then locally melted using high-energy fiber lasers. The build plate is then lowered, another layer of powder is drawn across the plate, and melted again. This process continues until the part is complete.

The design for the knob was based off my previously owned shift knobs, mainly the 50.8 mm diameter solid steel spherical knob. I then needed to decide how best to include features that would render traditional manufacturing techniques, especially for a one-off part, cost prohibitive, if not impossible.   I used ANSYS Spaceclaim Direct Modeler as my design software, as I have become very familiar with it using it daily for simulation geometry preparation and cleanup, but I digress, my initial concept can be seen below:2016-10-18_16-19-33

I was quickly informed that, while this design was possible, the amount of small features and overhangs would require support structure that would make post-processing the part very tedious. Armed with some additional pointers on creating self supporting parts that are better suited for metal 3D printing, I came up with a new concept.

2016-10-18_16-24-24

This design is much less complex, while still containing features that would be difficult to machine. However, with a material density of 0.0086 g/mm^3, I would be falling just short of total weight of 1 lb, my magic number. But what about really running away from DFM like it was the plague?

2016-10-18_16-23-31

There we go!!! Much better, this design iteration is spec’d to come out at 1.04 lbs, and with that, it was time to let the sparks fly!

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Here it is emerging as the metal powder that has not been melted during the process is brushed away.

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The competed knob then underwent a bit of post processing and the final result is amazing! I haven’t been able to stop sharing images of it with friends and running it around the office to show my co-workers. However, one thing remains to make the knob functional… it must be tapped.

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In order to do this, we need a good way to hold the knob in a vise. Lucky for us here at PADT, we have the ability to quickly design and print these parts. I came up with a design that we made using our PolyJet machine so we could have multiple material durometers in a single part. The part you need below utilizes softer material around the knob to cradle it and distribute the load of the vise onto the spherical lattice surface of the knob.

img_7765img_7764

We quickly found out that the Remanium material was not able to be simply tapped. We attempted to bore the hole out in order to be able to press in an insert, and also found out the High Speed Steel (HSS) was not capable of machining the hole. Carbide however does the trick, and we bored the hole out in order to press in a brass insert, which was then tapped.

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Finally, the shift knob is completed and installed!

Want to learn more, check out the article in “Additive Manufacturing Media.”

 

Technology Trends in Laser-based Metal Additive Manufacturing

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Figure 1. Concept Laser’s M2 Cusing at AMUG 2016

One of the more difficult things about being at the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) is dealing with the fact that there is more to do than you can hope to accomplish in four and a half days. So I decided to focus on two themes: laser-based metal additive manufacturing (AM); and design & simulation for AM. In this post, I focus on the former and try to distill the trends I noticed across the laser-based metal AM system manufacturers that were present at the conference: Concept Laser, SLM, Renishaw, EOS and 3D Systems (listed here in the decreasing order of the time I spent at each supplier’s booth). While it is interesting to study how 5 different suppliers interpret the same technology and develop machines around it, it is not my objective to compare them here, but to extract common trends that most suppliers seem to be working on to push their machines to the next level. For the purposes of this post, I have picked the top-of-the-line machine that each supplier offers as an indication of the technology’s capabilities: they span a range of price points, so once again this is not meant to be a comparison.

As a point of observation, the 5 key trends I noticed turned out to be all really aspects of taking the technology from short run builds towards continuous production. This was not my intent, so I believe it is an accurate indication of what suppliers are prioritizing at this stage of the technology’s growth and see as providing key levers for differentiation.

1. Quality Monitoring

Most customers of AM machines that wish to use it for functional part production bemoan the lack of controls during manufacturing that allow them to assess the quality of a part and screen for excursionary behavior without requiring expensive post-processing inspection. Third party companies like Sigma Labs and  Stratonics have developed platform-independent solutions that can be integrated with most metal AM systems. Metal AM suppliers themselves have developed a range of in-situ monitors that were discussed in a few presentations during AMUG, and they generally fall into the following categories:

  • Input Monitors:
    • Laser: Sensors monitor laser powder as well as temperature across the different critical components in the system
    • Oxygen Level: Sensors in the build chamber as well as in sieving stations track O2 levels to ensure the flushing of air with inert Argon or Nitrogen has been effective and that there are no leaks in the system
  • Output Monitors:
    • Live video: simple but useful, this allows users to get a live video stream of the top layer as it is being built and can help detection of recoater blade damage and part interaction
    • Meltpool: Concept Laser showed how its Meltpool monitoring system can be used to develop 2D and 3D plots that can be superimposed with the 3D CAD file to identify problematic areas – the video is also on YouTube and embedded below. SLM and EOS offer similar meltpool monitoring solutions.
    • Coater consistency: Concept Laser also described a monitor that captures before and after pictures to assess the consistency of the coater thickness across the build area – and this information is fed forward to adjust subsequent coater thicknesses in an intelligent manner.

Quality monitoring systems are still in their infancy with regard to what is done with the information generated, either in terms of feed forward (active) process control or even having high confidence in using the data to validate part quality. A combination of supplier development and academic and industry R&D is ongoing to get us to the next level.

2. Powder Handling

In a previous post, I touched upon the fire and explosion risks posed by metal powder handling. To lower the bar for an operator to gain access to a metal AM machine, one of the considerations is operator safety and the associated training they would need. Suppliers are constantly trying to improve the methods by which they can minimize powder handling. For a mechanical engineer, it is intriguing to see how reactive metal powders can be moved around in inert atmospheres using different strategies. The SLM 500HL uses a screw system to move the powder around in narrow tubes that stick out of the machine and direct the material to a sieving station after which they are returned to the feed area. The Renishaw RenAM 500M on the other hand uses a pneumatically driven recirculation system powered by Argon gas that is well integrated into the machine frame. Concept Laser also offers automated powder handling on the XLine 2000R, while EOS and 3DSystems do not offer this at the moment. Figure 2 below does not do justice to the level of complexity and thought that needs to go into this.

Figure 2. Two different automated powder handling systems in use in metal AM machines

One of the limitations of automating powder handling is the ability to change materials, which is very hard to impossible to do with high enough confidence with these systems. As a result, their use is limited to cases where one machine can be dedicated to one material and efficiency gains of powder handling can be fully realized. The jury is still out on the long term performance of these systems, and I suspect this is one area that will continue to see improvements and refinements in subsequent model releases.

3. Multi-Laser Processing

In the quest for productivity improvement, one of the biggest gains comes from increasing the number and power of available lasers for manufacturing. In my previous experience with laser based systems (albeit not for this application), an additional laser can increase overall machine throughput by 50-80% (it does not double due to steps like the recoater blade movement that does not scale with the number of lasers).

The suppliers I visited at AMUG have very different approaches to this: SLM provides the widest range of customizable options for laser selection with their 500HL, which can accept either 2 or 4 lasers with power selection choices of 400W or 1000W (the 4 laser option was on display, YouTube video from the same machine in action is below) – the lasers of different powers can also be combined to have two 400W and two 1000W lasers. Concept Laser’s XLine 2000R allows for either 1 or 2 1000W lasers and their smaller, M2 machine that was showcased at AMUG has options for 1 or 2 lasers, with power selection of 200W or 400W. EOS, Renishaw and 3D Systems presently offer only single laser solutions: the EOS M 400 has one 1000W laser, Renishaw’s RenAM 500M has one 500W laser and the ProX DMP 320 from 3D Systems has one 500W laser.

There are a few considerations to be aware of when assessing a multi-laser machine: Each laser drives an increase in machine capital cost. But there is another point of note to remember when using multi-laser systems for manufacturing that centers around matching process outputs from different lasers: laser-to-laser variation can be a dominant source of overall process variation and can drive a need to calibrate, maintain and control both lasers as if they were independent machine systems. Additionally, development of  a process on one particular laser power (100W, 400W, 500W, 1000W) may not scale easily to another and is something to remember when developing a long term strategy for metal AM that involves different kinds of machines, even if from the same supplier.

4. Software Integration

Renishaw spent a significant amount of time talking about their easy-to-use QuantAM software which is designed to integrate Renishaw process parameters and part processing information more tightly and allow for seamless process parameter development without needing third part software like Magics. Additive Industries announced in their presentation at AMUG that they had just signed an agreement with 3DSIM to integrate their support design software solution into their MetalFab1 machine. Software integration is likely to be an increasing trend especially around the following areas:

  • Improving support design methods and reducing its empirical nature and reducing the material, build time and support removal costs associated with them as well as eliminating the need for iterative builds
  • Increasing process options available to the user (for example for the outer skin vs the inner core, or for thick vs thin walls)
  • Simplifying the development of optimized process parameters for the user working on new materials
  • Integrating design and process optimization to increase effective part performance

In a future blog post, I will look specifically at the many design and simulation tools available around AM and how they are connected today even if not well-synergized.

5. Modular System Architectures

In a list of mostly evolutionary changes, this is the one area that struck me as being a step-change in how this technology will make an impact, even if it will be felt only by larger scale manufacturers. Concept Laser and Additive Industries are two companies that delivered presentations discussing how they were approaching the challenge of revolutionizing the technology for true production and minimizing the need for human touch. Common to both is the notion of modularity, allowing for stacking of printing, powder removal, heat treating and other stations. While Additive Industries are developing a flow resembling a series production line, Concept Laser have taken the more radical approach of having autonomous vehicles delivering the powder bed to the different stations, with travel channels for the vehicles, for the operator and for maintenance access (Figure 3). Both companies expect to have solutions out by the end of this year.

Figure 3. Concept Laser’s “Factory of Tomorrow” features swim-lanes for operators and for autonomous vehicles that will deliver powder and parts from one module to another

Concluding Thoughts

It is an interesting time to be a manufacturer of laser-based metal 3D printers, and an even more interesting time to be a consumer of this technology. The laser-material interaction fundamentals of the process are now fairly well-established. Competitors abound both in existing and emerging markets with machines that share many of the same capabilities. Alternative technologies (E-Beam melting, deposition and jetting) are making strides and may start to play in some applications currently dominated by laser-based technologies. A post early-adopter chasm may be around the corner. This will continuously drive the intense need to innovate and differentiate, and possibly also lead to a merger or two. And while most of the news coming out of conferences is justifiably centered around new process technologies (as was the case with Carbon’s CLIP and XJET’s metal nanoparticle jetting at AMUG this year), I think there is an interesting story developing in laser-based powder bed fusion and can’t wait to see what AMUG 2017 looks like!

Reactive and Non-Reactive Metal Alloys in Laser-based Powder Bed Fusion

One of the first concepts you come across in metal 3D printing is the notion of reactivity of the powder metal alloys – in this post, I investigate why some of these powder alloys are classified as reactive and others as non-reactive, and briefly touch upon the implications of this to the user of metal 3D printing tools, scoping the discussion to laser-based powder bed fusion. Ultimately, this boils down to a safety issue and I believe it is important that we, the users of these technologies, truly understand the fundamentals behind the measures we are trained to follow. If you are looking to get something chemical etched visit https://interplex.com/technology/process-capability/chemical-etching/.

Figure 1 below is indicative of the range of materials available currently for the laser-based powder bed fusion process (this selection is from Concept Laser). I have separated these into non-reactive and reactive metal alloys. The former includes steels, Inconels, bronze and CoCrW alloys. The reactive metal alloys on the other hand are Aluminum or Titanium based. The question is: what classifies them as such in the context of this process?

Figure 1.
Figure 1. Typical metal alloys available for the laser-based powder bed fusion process (from Concept Laser), classified as Non-Reactive and Reactive

Reactivity in this process really pertains to the likelihood of the alloy in question serving as a fuel for a fire and/or an explosion, which are two related but distinct phenomena. To truly understand the risk associated with powder metals, we must first understand a few basic concepts.

1. Fire and Explosion Criteria

Figure 2 is a commonly used representation of the criteria that need to be met to initiate a fire (fuel, oxygen and an ignition source) and an explosion (the same three criteria for a fire, plus a dust cloud and confined space). When handling reactive metal alloy powders, it is important to remember that two of the three requirements for a fire are almost always met and the key lies in avoiding the other criterion. When not processing the powder in the machine, it is often subject to ambient oxygen content and thus all precautions are taken to prevent an ignition source (an ESD spark, for example). When the metal is being processed with a high power laser, it is done in an inert atmosphere at very low Oxygen levels. This thought process of appreciating you are one criterion away from a fire is useful, if sobering, to bear in mind when working with these powders.

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Figure 2. The fire triangle and explosion pentagon

2. Terms Used to Describe Fire and Explosion Risk

There are several terms used to describe fire and explosion risk. I have picked 5 here that tie into the overall “index” I will discuss in the following section. All these parameters are in turn functions of the material in question, both with regard to its composition and its size distribution and are co-dependent. These definitions are adapted from Benson (2012) and Prodan et al. (2012).

  • Fire Related: These two terms describe the sensitivity of a metal dust cloud to ignition.
    • Ignition Temperature: This is the lowest surface temperature capable of igniting a powder or dust dispersed in the form of a dust cloud
    • Minimum Ignition Energy: This measures the ease of ignition of a dust cloud by electrical and electrostatic discharges.
  • Explosion Related: These terms describe the severity of an explosion arising from a fire once ignited.
    • Minimum Explosion Concentration (MEC): This is the smallest amount of dust which when suspended in air, under a set of test conditions, will initiate an explosion and propagate even after the action of the ignition source has ceased.
    • Maximum Explosion Pressure: This is a measure of the highest pressure that occurs during of an explosion of a flammable mixture in a closed vessel.
    • Maximum Rate of Pressure Rise: This is the maximum slope of the pressure/time curve during a flammable mixture explosion in a closed vessel.

3. Index of Explosibility

Having defined these terms, the question is how they can be tied together to give some sense of the hazard associated with each metal powder. I came across a 1964 US Bureau of Mines study that defined an Index of Explosibility as a measure of the hazard risk posed by powder metal alloys. The index represents both the sensitivity of the powder to ignition, and once ignited, the severity of the resulting explosion. Since this is a subjective metric, it is normalized by comparison against a “standard”, which was selected as Pittsburgh coal dust in the 1964 study. Importantly though, this normalization enables us to do qualitative comparisons between metal powders and have some sense of the hazard risk posed by them. Figure 3 is the equation reproduced from the original 1964 report and shows how this term is estimated.

Index of Explosibility (US Bureau of Mines study, 1964)
Figure 3. Index of Explosibility (US Bureau of Mines study, 1964)
Figure 3. Particle size has a significant impact on explosibility
Figure 4. Particle size has a significant impact on explosibility

The study also showed how the index was a direct function of particle size. Most powders for 3D metal printing are in the 20-100um range, and as shown in Fig. 4 for atomized Aluminum, the risk of an explosion increases with reducing particle diameter. 

The authors tested a range of metals and computed the different variables, which I have compiled anew in the table in Figure 5 for the ones we are interested in for metal 3D printing. The particle sizes in the 1964 study were ones that made it through a No. 200 sieve (less than 75 microns), but did not include sub-micron particles – this makes it an appropriate comparison for metal 3D printing. It is clear from the Index of Explosibility values, as well as the Cloud Ignition Temperatures in the table below why Aluminum and Titanium are classified as reactive metals requiring special attention and care.

Figure . Explosibility study findings from US Bureau of Mines study (1964)
Figure 5. Index of Explosibility comparison for selected metal alloys, adapted from US Bureau of Mines study (1964)

4. Implications for Metal 3D Printing

So what does this mean for metal 3D printing? There are three things to be aware of that are influenced by whether you are working with non-reactive or reactive alloys – I only provide a general discussion here, specific instructions will be provided to you in supplier training and manuals and must be followed.

  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): There are typically two levels of PPE: standard and extended. The standard PPE can be used for non-reactive alloy handling, but the reactive alloys require the more stringent, extended PPE. The main difference is that the extended PPE requires the use of a full bunny suit, ESD grounding straps and thermal gloves.
  • Need for Inert Gas Handling: Many tasks on a metal 3D printer require handling of powder (pouring the powder into the chamber, excavating a part, cleaning the chamber of powder etc.). Most of these tasks can be performed in the ambient for non-reactive metal alloys with standard PPE, but for reactive alloys these tasks must be performed in an inert atmosphere.
  • Local authority approvals: It is important that your local authorities including the fire marshall, are aware of the materials you are processing and review and authorize their use in your facility before you turn on the machine. Local regulations may require special procedures be implemented for preparing the room for use of reactive metal alloys, that do not apply to non-reactive metals. It is vital that the authorities are brought into the discussion early on and necessary certifications obtained, keeping in mind that reactive metal alloy use may drive additional investment in safety measures.

5. Conclusion

Safe operation of metal 3D printers requires installation of all the necessary safety equipment, extensive hands-on training and the use of checklists as memory aides. In addition to that, it helps to connect these to the fundamental reasons why these steps are important so as to gain a clearer appreciation of the source of the hazard and the nature of the risk it poses. In this article I have tried to demonstrate why reactivity in metal 3D printing matters and what the basis is for the classification of these metal alloys into reactive and non-reactive by leveraging an old 1964 study. I wish to close with a reminder that this information is meant to supplement formal training from your equipment supplier – if there is any conflict in the information presented here, please revert to your supplier’s recommendations.

Thank you for reading; stay safe as you innovate!

Webinar Content: Answers to your Questions on Metal 3D Printing

Download a recording and the slides from this this informative webinar.

3d-metal-printing-webinar-slide-1Metal Additive Manufacturing, or Metal 3D Printing, is a topic that generates a lot of interest, and even more questions.  So we held a webinar on February 9th, 2016 to try and answer the most common questions we encounter. It was a huge success with over 150 people logging in to watch live.  But many of you could not make it so we have put the slides and a recording of the webinar out there.  Just go to this link to access the information.

The presentation answered the fllowing common questions:

  • Introductory:
    • Who are PADT and Concept Laser?
    • How does laser-based metal 3D printing work?
    • Are there other ways to 3D print in metal and how do they compare?
  • Technical:
    • What are the different process steps involved?
    • How “good” are 3D printed metal parts?
  • Strategic:
    • What materials and machines do you offer?
    • Who uses this technology today?
    • What is the value proposition of metal 3D printing for me?
    • What can I do after this webinar?

As always, our technical team is available to answer any additional questions you may have. Just shoot an email to metal-am@padtinc.com or give us a call at 480.813.4884.

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