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Researcher works to make 3D-printed metals stronger, customizable

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 27, 2014
WPI engineer's work involves printing with semi-solid metals, instead of limited powders.

The ability to print with a variety of superalloys, added Kempton, would be a huge advance in terms of the types of objects that could be produced, as well as their strength and durability.

"3D printing with these metals is highly sought after, especially in the aerospace and automotive industry," he said. "The less oxidization the better. Obviously corrosion means that you have parts that are degenerating at a faster pace and need replacement more frequently. And in the automotive, and particularly the aerospace area, if you have an object that fails, especially midflight, the results are catastrophic."

Using a semi-solid metal, instead of a powder, also would mean lower energy costs for the manufacturer since the processing temperatures needed to print with semi-solids is much lower.

"If you're using lasers [and powders], you have to get the material up to white heat to get the materials to fuse together," explained Viridis' Bredt. "A lower temperature means less energy is needed to make the part and that's a significant part of the cost... One of the significant costs of the process now isn't significant anymore."

Apelian noted that being able to use a wide range of metals specifically the superalloys would enable medical device companies to use 3D printing to make customized pieces.

"Everyone has different-sized knees," Apelian said. "If they could print a new knee for someone customize that knee -- then it would fit just right ... and there would be less pain and less physical therapy."

His work could revolutionize the ability to customize pieces, whether they're replacements for knees and hips, or automotive parts for a military vehicle being used in the desert.

"There are a lot of applications where you're not making 100,000 parts for automobiles," said Apelian. "You may be making customized pieces where it's maybe one or two or four of them. These are high-integrity applications, like jet engine parts or legacy parts that nobody makes anymore. It will revolutionize the way we make things that are customized."

To make that happen, though, he needs to figure out how to control the semi-solids in the manufacturing process.

"How do you control gooey, mushy metals so you have high precision when you make the deposit?" he asked. "I have to control the thixotropy or how the flow changes under the application of a force. I have to make sure it's flowing in a controlled manner."

Robert Parker, an analyst with research firm IDC, said there is a lot of activity going on to expand the variety of materials that can be used in 3D metal printing, but Apelian's group may be the only one looking at using "goo." That means there's a lot of work ahead to make these semi-solids work.


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