The research into metal 3D printing never ends, as scientists work to discover what factors go into the creation of defects in metal 3D printed parts – and what can be done to eliminate those defects. Imperfections in metal 3D printed parts are nothing to ignore; in many industries, an imperfect metal part is a dangerous metal part. So there’s no hesitation by companies, research institutions and the military to spend money on the effort to understand and eliminate issues with metal additive manufacturing.
Recently, researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso’s W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation were granted $900,000 from the Army Research Laboratory. The recipients, specifically, are Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., Director of the Keck Center; Cesar Terrazas, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor; and Philip Morton, Applications Manager for the Keck Center. The funds, which are being facilitated through the MSI STEM Research and Development Consortium, will help to advance laser powder bed fusion additive manufacturing technology through the detection of defects using in situ process monitoring and 3D metal-matrix composite fabrication process development.
“We are extremely pleased to have an opportunity to expand on the work we do here at the Keck Center,” Wicker said. “This is a testament not only to the unique capabilities of our facility but also to the expertise offered by our faculty and staff.”
The money, which is being allocated over the next three years, is funding two objectives. The first involves making improvements to the method of process monitoring. Plans include the implementation of an infrared camera that will observe the metal 3D printing process and develop algorithms to more effectively identify defects and correct them quickly and efficiently.
“A lot of people are already interested in process monitoring,” Morton said. “You can buy some systems with cameras. But what we’re trying to add is real-time defect detection in order to make real-time corrections.”
The second objective is to institute nitriding of a titanium alloy during the laser powder bed fusion process. A laser will be used to heat up the metal as it’s printing, while simultaneously being exposed to nitrogen to form titanium nitride within the alloy.
“Typically, if you nitride something, it’s a surface coating,” Morton said. “So, you can’t really get these nitrides inside of the metal easily. The idea is tailoring the microstructure. Instead of simply designing the shape or geometry of a part, we can tailor the material properties. It’s a new tool to solve a problem. Traditionally, a designer can look at a part and say, ‘Oh, it needs to be thick here to withstand the load.’ But what we’re wanting to do is tailor sections of it. So, if you had a rocket, you can strengthen the area exposed to the hottest temperatures to avoid failure when running hotter.”
The Keck Center will receive about $300,000 in the first year, which will be spent establishing a proof of concept. The two years after that will be spent on system fabrication and implementation. The Center has already received numerous grants in the past as well as several additive manufacturing-related patents, and Morton said that the Center’s track record was instrumental in receiving this latest grant.
“We are one of the first additive manufacturing users to start building feedback control into these systems,” he said. “Now, these commercial companies are starting to build and implement these systems. So, we have some past performance as well as the research infrastructure, which makes it easier to get awards because agencies don’t want to fund your infrastructure. We’re excited to get this planned out and working.”
3D printing remains a big focus at UTEP, which has previously received a $2.1 million grant to develop an electronics 3D printer, as well as participating in research to develop more sensitive strain gauges.
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