AMS Spring 2023

Metal 3D Printing at AMS 2022: Metals & New Materials

6K SmarTech

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In part one of my coverage of metal 3D printing at Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2022, I discussed the first session of the day, Additive Manufacturing for Series Production of Metal Parts, while part two focused on session two, Industrial Metal Additive Manufacturing. Read on to hear about the third and final session of the day, Metals and New Materials!

Session 3: Metals and New Materials

6K Additive Topic Keynote

Frank Roberts, the President of 6K Additive, presented the final keynote of the day, all about sustainability, which also meant that materials would be discussed as well.

“People typically ask what the actual cost of sustainability is,” Roberts said. “We find it is a misconception across the industry that because it’s sustainable means it’s more expensive. But that misconception can lead to a lack of follow-through, and the reality is that less than a third of manufacturing companies engage with sustainable strategic planning.”

Roberts said that while AM is known for sustainability, which is a good thing, people need to learn the actual reality of this. 6K Additive is focused on powder, including questions such as what energy goes into producing feedstocks, and how much post-processing is required.

He said that a life cycle assessment of the company found that “no matter the alloy, we’re using considerably less energy, and generating less waste and CO2, than traditional methods.”

Roberts explained that needing to import strategic materials from other countries is considered by the US government to be a national security threat, but that 6K doesn’t have any materials coming in from mining operations and only uses scrap materials. This allows 6K Additive to set up good partnerships with companies like Boeing; Roberts quoted Boeing on one of his slides as saying that “Almost 95% of a used aero engine can now be recycled and around half of the recovered material is of such high quality it can be safely used again to make a new engine.”

He finished by discussing the company’s future, including the fact that it has two more reactors coming online in early Q2 2022 to join its two existing ones and is about to break ground on a “significant expansion.” Roberts also reminded attendees that 6K Additive’s microwaved-based UniMelt Plasma process, which creates a uniform melt area that’s both efficient and scalable, enables the company’s technology.

“In terms of sustainability, we’ve been working hard to take any type of scrap from subtractive and additive technologies. We offer credits to companies who bring us their used powder, or taking their failed builds and supports and turning it into premium powder,” he said.

6K Additive is looking to expand into Asia and Europe in order to get closer to its customers and suppliers, “which can often be one and the same.”

“Our strategy is: use everything,” Roberts concluded. “Everything has a value stream.”

Titanium and Aluminum

Mike Vasquez, the Founder and CEO of 3Degrees, returned to moderate a panel on Titanium and Aluminum 3D printing, featuring Carpenter Additive‘s Vice President Ben Ferrar; Adam Travis, Manager of Additive Manufacturing for Rusal America; and Jens Kroeger, Materials Expert, AP&C, a GE Additive company, joining virtually.

Vasquez asked what challenges the powder business faces, and Ferrar said that they’re not necessarily feeling the same supply chain issues others have mentioned.

“Titanium is like the shiny highest-value material that a lot of people made efforts to get into, and the focus came off the development of the material and into building capacity,” he said. “Now people are coming back to truly understand the mechanical properties and extending the life of the material to extend the value as much as possible.”

Ferrar continued on to aluminum, saying that thousands of alloys have processing challenges, with many new materials that aren’t backed by decades of allowables and material data, like aluminum is. Travis agreed, calling aluminum the “ugly stepchild of the metals,” which has “created a unique opportunity for specialty alloys to come in and demonstrate their use.”

“But there are lots of challenges around that, these are often totally new alloys replicating other properties,” Travis said.

Kroeger agreed, noting that AP&C has had “incredible success” in the medical field with titanium, as it can be used to 3D print implants and trabecular structures that facilitate bone growth.

“That was a good use case that couldn’t be achieved with a technology other than additive manufacturing, and the success of that application has really launched that field in a big big way,” he said. “But we’re still waiting for a business case that makes sense for aluminum.”

Vasquez asked their thoughts on powder use from both a cost and qualification point of view, and Travis said that volumes are lower for specialty aluminum alloys, with certain high-strength families, so any “business case for reuse just gets amplified.”

“Specific to specialty alloys, in the same way that everyone will interact with the process differently, these materials will be affected by the process differently,” he continued. “So it’s important to think about reuse, to think about that refurbishing loop.”

Ferrar said it all came down to application, and that while new cases are “sort of standardized,” the metrics aren’t great.

“Being able to provide a framework so people can be successful in this is crucial.”

Kroeger said there definitely weren’t any solid standards because each customer has their own strategy, and while that makes sense, this lack of a unified strategy “prevents any common metric or language to discuss it.”

“We also need to address simply blending powders,” he stated. “No one will agree that it’s a good idea to blend or not blend powders with different oxide levels, but this topic needs to be investigated further.”

New Material Solutions for Additive Manufacturing

The next talk, pre-recorded by Pierre Forêt, Director R&D Additive Manufacturing at Linde GmbH, was focused on recent developments in AM material solutions. Forêt said he’d be discussing four materials, two of which are already widely used and two more that will open up new applications.

“Additive manufacturing is a lot about materials, and there’s always interaction between metal and gas,” he said.

Forêt explained that process gas in laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) technologies is used to remove the process by-products. Comparing a slide of argon gas and helium gas, there were more byproducts and fumes associated with the argon, but the fumes disappeared much faster with helium, and also had less by-products.

He noted that Inconel 718 has “been around a long time,” often used to produce aerospace components and gas turbines, but Linde and Siemens Energy used the material to “increase the process reliability of 3D printing” with less energy.

The next material was GasAlloy-X, a high-strength aluminum alloy used by Oerlikon AM for PBF processes.

Forêt said that Linde and EOS used ADDvance 02 technology for a study on Aluminum Silica 10 Magnesium, or ALSi10Mg, which had good results.

Finally, the shape memory alloy Nitinol was used by Marle 3D Medlab and Linde for a project resulting in a 3D printed spring.

Addressing the Binder Jetting Challenge with Pioneering Technology

The CEO of Uniformity Labs, Adam Hopkins, explained that his company developed low-density feedstocks, which can help “dramatically reduce part costs,” as well as failed builds and labor time, and create parts that are twice as strong. Uniformity Labs uses a feedstock toolkit to fit its materials to different applications.

“We break the barriers for true AM adoption,” he said about the company.

He explained that improving production capacity by using binder jetting instead can lead to a major revenue increase, and that binder jetting can be used to print metal parts for much less money and improve material properties as well, resulting in more design flexibility.

Hopkins said that the company’s powder production processes are scalable, which “de-risks the adoption of metal AM for production,” and that a sintering printer OEM using Uniformity’s metal powders has demonstrated a reduced linear shrinkage with the materials. He then mentioned the sinterable aluminum 6061 the company introduced with Desktop Metal last year, saying that others can’t achieve that material and noting that it can be layered evenly to print “highly dense” parts with high purity and machined-quality strength.

Hopkins finished by saying that Uniformity Labs has commissioned a new facility, from which it plans on shipping over 200 tons of binder jetting, LPBF, and MIM powders this year.

“We want to solve your problems,” he concluded. “We’re printer-agnostic, our goal is to enable additive manufacturing for customers and apply this powder technology.”

Refractory Metals – Emerging AM Applications

The next talk brought 6K Additive back to the forefront, with Eric Bono, VP of Sales – Powders, discussing emerging AM applications for refractory metal powders. He explained that people can’t always agree on what refractory means, with “a bit of a flexible definition,” and stated that it’s a group of metallic elements, like tungsten, tantalum, rhenium, and molybdenum, that have a high melting temperature and wear resistance.

Bono showed a video of a project he worked on over 20 years ago with the DoD that was focused on warheads with “tungsten parts that would break off and cause lethal damage.” These were extremely effective “bunker-busters,” as he called them, but it took a whole year to build and test just four of them. Not long after that project, DARPA issued an application call for a more efficient “tungsten composite self-forging fragmenting warhead,” which is a terrifying set of words. Additive manufacturing wasn’t listed in the brief, but Bono said you could really see where the “seeds were planted” in terms of what the agency was looking in a faster manufacturing process.

Bono explained that the properties and temperatures of refractory metals, while “attractive” for applications in military, nuclear, electronics, medical, and aerospace industries, make the powder materials difficult to produce at scale volumes for additive manufacturing. He said that 6K gets past this with the UniMelt plasma system, which Roberts brought up earlier in the day.

“It offers consistent temperature across the whole cross section, and the temperature is greater than 10,000°,” he said. “So we can melt just about anything, and we’ve done some crazy, crazy things with it.”

Bono explained that the plasma system, which resembles an atomizer “with all the business up on top,” can control particle size (with a 98% yield), improve cleanliness, and control the powder’s microstructure and morphology, resulting in consistent powder.

He closed with an example of a tungsten-rhenium (WRe) part, explaining that one of the company’s customers 3D printed a thruster using 6K’s materials. Tungsten is notoriously difficult to additively manufacture, as he explained, and adding rhenium makes a much more printable alloy, though it’s “quite the opposite” of a cheaper option. Bono showed us the workflow, starting with the two metals ball-milled together into a feedstock, before being turned into a spheroidized powder, which was then used to print the thruster.

“That’s another application in how you can overcome seemingly difficult materials to turn into powder,” he concluded.

Ceramics

The next panel, moderated by SmarTech Analysis President Lawrence Gasman, focused entirely on ceramics 3D printing, courtesy of panelists Guillaume de Calan, the CEO of Nanoe, and XJet‘s Chief Business Officer Dror Danai. After a brief introduction of their companies, in which de Calan said that Nanoe manufacturers Zetamix ceramic filament and Danai explained that XJet uses material jetting, rather than binder jetting, Gasman asked Danai how involved with the materials XJet got, and asked if he was a consultant to customers about materials they should be using.

Danai explained that XJet’s dispersion method jets the material into a liquid dispersion, not a solution, and that customers do buy ink exclusively from the company.

“We use nanoparticles that we buy on the open market and cut them to be even smaller, then take extremely small amount of particles—less than one-tenth of a micron—and put in a formula that’s like ink,” he continued. “This allows us to jet it, and using the temperature, the liquid quickly evaporates instantaneously to ensure these very very thin layers.”

Gasman asked him if XJet’s applications were similar to those of Nanoe, and he answered that the company sees a “very high proportion of healthcare uses.” Then, Gasman asked de Calan if Nanoe was involved in any military projects, and he said the company has a few military projects going on, such as ballistic protection, but that their number one application is tooling.

“But the technology has some pros and cons here,” he continued. “There are a lot of ceramics applications in defense. But they’re not really long-term.”

Gasman asked the two panelists how they saw the ceramics area evolving, and where they see ceramics in the near future. Danai said that they can offer a very educated guess, noting that ceramic additive manufacturing “opens the door to a complete new set of applications that were impossible before.”

“I think maybe in four years we’ll see applications people were trying to do before,” he said. “Ceramics is very hard to shape and we get into very small details and complex geometries. In communication, we can use the physical properties of ceramic to create extremely complex applications for defense communications.”

de Calan noted that some applications are going industrial, and that prototyping and R&D work are going by the wayside, “particularly in aerospace.” He also agreed with Danai’s thought about ceramics AM being used in the communications industry.

“We’re trying to make ceramic a much more common material at Nanoe,” he said. “I think additive manufacturing can help widen the applications of ceramics.”

Composites

The final panel of the day, on composite materials, was once again moderated by Gasman, and welcomed panelists Heli Kangas, Technology Manager, Biomass Processing and Products, VTT Technical Research Centre, who joined us virtually, and Sumeet Jain, Senior Director, Arkema.

“The topic is a little broader than simply composites,” Gasman said. “We are going to talk about composites, but also about polymers, especially sustainable ones. You could have a whole conference about this.”

He asked about sustainability challenges with polymer composites, and Jain agreed that composites is “a very broad topic.” He noted that carbon fiber and glass-filled fiber are used often in traditional processes, but that as a society, it’s up to us to use more bio-based sources, and continue to bring these materials into the marketplace. Kangas agreed that bio-based materials are promising, but noted that it is a complex subject, because we must also consider the processing of the materials, and the energy used in production.

“There is a lot to do, but we need to understand where the different aspects of sustainability come from,” she continued, naming economic and social as examples.

Gasman mentioned that composites have been around for a long time, and asked when the “new breed” of sustainable composite materials would be moving into the marketplace. Kangas enthusiastically stated that VTT is ready now, but that as a research institute, “we need a commercialization partner to take it further.” She also noted that interest is increasing in having composites replace plastics. Jain said that by the time you have an ecosystem for conventional applications, like automotive and aerospace, it can take a long time to get through the qualifications and validations necessary to get to market.

“The regulators also work to our favor,” Kangas said. “In Europe, for automobiles, standards get stricter and stricter all the time, so auto manufacturers need to replace their materials, and more of them are looking at bio-based ones.”

Rounding out the day, Gasman asked what the road map was for adoption of this “new breed” of materials in terms of additive manufacturing.” Jain said that he believes the adoption cycle here will follow very similar patterns to any other industries—starting off with industries that are lower-stake, such as consumer goods, than something heavily regulated, like aerospace, and physically demonstrating the technology there.

“They may not be the most sophisticated applications, but you can actually get in the marketplace by making things like watches or bikes,” he concluded. “This allows innovators to better understand and create a more robust ecosystem, and that’s the phase we’re in.”

Jain thinks some of these applications will be in the marketplace in the next two to five years.

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