Sweden-based FreeMelt is pioneering open electron beam powder bed fusion (E-PBF) machines. The company makes open architecture systems where every thinkable parameter is available for change by the user. These types of systems are ideal for research institutes, characterizing new materials and doing cutting edge work in materials science or electron beam 3D printing itself. FreeMelt offers users access to the very guts of the machine and a lot of configuration options to explore in its software as well. Their FreeMelt One systems have a 6 Kw electron beam gun and have bed temperatures up to 1200C. It comes with ports to easily add instruments to the printer. The One has open architecture software as well and a community for knowledge sharing.
All in all the FreeMelt is a great open-source system for your research lab or national lab. The KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm thinks so as well, having just ordered two FreeMelt One systems, one for the KTH itself to be used for materials development and one for the DESY particle accelerator in Hamburg.
Greta Lindwall, assistant professor at KTH’s Material Science and Engineering faculty, has been awarded a grant from the Röntgen-Ångström Cluster for DESY. The Röntgen-Ångström Cluster is a joint Swedish and German research initiative aimed at research for synchrotron and neutron radiation sources. The research initiative supports among other instruments the photon sources PETRA III and FLASH at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY in Hamburg. A synchrotron is a particle accelerator where the particles travel in a loop. The biggest synchrotron is the Large Hadron Collider.
The project’s aim “is to construct a sample environment that enables time-resolved investigations of alloys’ behavior while exposed to conditions typical for the 3D-printing technology selected electron beam melting.” Since Lindwall does a lot of cutting-edge work in superalloys and other high-temperature materials, we can assume that it will be used to accelerate her work in that area. She states that,
“Since AM is a new and complex manufacturing technique, there is still a lot we don’t understand when it comes to the materials’ behavior during the process. As the layers are melted, re-melted and exposed to cyclic heating and cooling, the manufactured part acquires a complex thermal history. And it’s difficult to understand the process’ conditions and how they affect the material just by looking at the microstructures of the finished parts using standard lab characterization techniques.
“For this reason, we want to study how the alloy structures evolve during AM by tracking them in real-time. This is possible if miniature AM machines are developed so that the AM conditions can be mimicked while tracking the materials behavior using high-energy X-ray generated from a synchrotron source.”
That’s very exciting, especially since this kind of work has not been done before for electron beam 3D printing, though laser systems at the University of Manchester and others have been used for similar projects. This would be a great start if someone was trying to make an e-beam system like VELO3D’s impressive laser technology.
3D printing is very much a black box with very little information available about what is actually happening with gas flow or in the melt pool, for example. Any kind of research that helps with an improved fundamental understanding of 3D printing as a process will accelerate all of our endeavors. Traditionally, electron beam has been far behind laser PBF because more companies and governments were pushing laser systems and research funding for those machines. There has been an electron beam renaissance, however, through the use of the technology in aviation, space, and orthopedics. This has lead to a lot more electron beam research exploring new materials, new applications, and developments like gradient parts.
For me, FreeMelt’s progress is very important to the industry. Having open and open source platforms can greatly accelerate research. More people working collaboratively using FreeMelt systems could also help accelerate an ever larger pool of scientists’ work at the same time. I also think that the market for these entry-level metal printers that are very open, is an interesting one to follow.
FreeMelt’s systems could not only be for your research lab, but also the first step for your company’s engagement with 3D printing. I really appreciate the open architecture and open source nature of these systems as a stepping stone to specific manufacturing devices. If we look at what Dunlee has done in developing 3D printed tungsten specifically for CT anti scatter grids, there are a lot of similar opportunities out there where a super high value part can be made through commercializing a new material specifically to make that part. Similarly, we could also see that, for some very specific parts, it might make sense to commercialize one particular alloy just to produce these parts. Think of an optimal alloy for a specific turbomachinery part or an optimal design for a particular rocket engine nozzle. Or what if you need to make a particular component with a particular shape and you then take a FreeMelt One and customize the printer just for that one item? Or what about if you build a very specific production line with a One as its heart? I love all of these ideas and think that they point to a broader future for FreeMelt.
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