Diran Apelian, a professor of mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is researching the use of semi-solid metals, instead of powdered metal, in 3D printing. Credit: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld
A scientist at Worcester Polytechnic Institute is working on a way to change metal 3D printing that could revolutionize the way products are customized.
Diran Apelian, a professor of mechanical engineering at WPI, is researching the use of so-called semi-solid metals, instead of powdered metals, in additive manufacturing. His work could give manufacturers more metals to work with and ultimately create 3D-printed products that are stronger and longer lasting.
"There are problems with the powders," said Apelian, director of WPI's Metal Processing Institute. "This will revolutionize the way we make things."
Apelian is collaborating with researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Viridis 3D LLC, a Woburn, Mass., company that makes 3D printing machines and software.
Together, they're working on metals that are semi-solid, or half liquid and half solid, and have a gooey or mushy consistency. Using this materials would be a change for the additive industry, which uses powdered metal for 3D metal printing. Powders, however, have been found to have problems.
Powdered metals contain oxides, which not only make the metal more apt to rust, but also act like holes in Swiss cheese or bubbles in dough, and weaken the final product.
"That's a very bad thing," Apelian said. "It would be like having little pin holes in a glass pane, adding lots of places where the glass could break. The powders for these high-temperature melting alloys are difficult to make and they have a lot of oxides, so it may not be as strong and may lead to failures."
It's also difficult for manufacturers to get a wide variety of powdered metals.
"There are only a few alloys that you can get sufficient quantities of," said James Bredt, a co-founder of Viridis 3D. "It's a small market. The manufacturers of these metal powders are huge companies making the powders for different industries. Most [powders] don't really work on these laser [3D printing] machines. They're not set up to produce stuff of purity as high as you need for a laser sintering process."
Joe Kempton, an analyst with market research firm Canalys, said this is the first he's heard of research on semi-solid metals for 3D printing, and said the material could get around the problems that come with powders.
"It's quite interesting," Kempton said. "Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for 3D printing itself is the limited amount of materials you can print with... What they really want is a wide range of high-performance alloys or superalloys. The reason these industries are looking for superalloys is because they often have extreme durability and high performance under pressure. They're resistant to oxidation and corrosion."
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