Dec 4, 2015 | By Alec

Metal 3D printing is a fantastic manufacturing technology and has the ability to become a significant industry player, but it does have one major downside: all products made with a metal 3D printer feature one set of mechanical properties: one propeller, for instance, features the same hardness, strength and toughness levels all over the part, even if the part would function better if some regions of the part (such as the blades) are harder, tougher or even less hard. Fortunately, there is a solution, and it has just come out of the Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). With an especially developed laser optical engine, they can regulate and control the metal microstructures to gain different results.

While there are some other ways to control the mechanical properties of metal parts, especially post-heat treatment, the effects on 3D printed parts were always marginal. Most problematically, those methods could not be freely applied to different areas of the component – it’s all or nothing, meaning you’re quite stuck with the original characteristics of the metal you’re working with. Fortunately, ITRI’s ‘Optical Engine for Material Grain Microstructure-Controlling Additive Manufacturing Technology’, to give its full name, avoids these restrictions through laser technology.

So how does it work? Beginning their research with a focus on microstructures in metal materials, the Taiwanese researchers found out that they can regulate and control the laser optics with a special setup, enabling them to change the microstructures while 3D printing. This means the same powder can be made harder in some places, tougher in other, and so on. ‘The technology consists of a major beam shape for melting the powder, and an extended beam shape for controlling solidification temperatures. Users just need to set the required process parameters to control the preheating temperature and cooling rates of solidification in designated areas to obtain desired product characteristics,’ the engineers say.

This ‘Optical Engine for Material Grain Microstructure-Controlling Additive Manufacturing Technology’ is thus quite a great breakthrough, as it can dynamically control temperature changes and crystallization characteristics of parts in real-time – finally making 3D metal printing truly suitable for on-demand production. The institute further adds that their new technology can also reduce printing times and cost. ‘Its excellent temperature evolution controlling ability can improve the process stability by controlling the thermal gradient and material grain microstructure,’ they say. Perhaps best of all, this optical engine can be added to existing commercial equipment to significantly improve 3D printing results – who knows how long it would take before bids from Stratasys are coming in?

But more importantly, it opens up the way towards a large number of 3D printing applications. Now being able to combine differentiation requirements with the high value designs of metal 3D printing, a wide range of industries are set to benefit – including the automotive, aerospace and biomedical equipment industries. ITRI itself suggests that customized metal orthopedic replacements and implants are easily made with their technology. ‘As for automobile and aeronautical industries, vital structural components such as turbines require isometric material structure at the rotor hub to resist abrasion and monocrystals or isotropic crystals at the surrounding blades to prevent high-temperature fatigue,’ they say, and that’s no longer a problem for them. Perhaps this is the innovation everyone’s been waiting for?



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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