Laboratory Working to Perfect 3D Printing Process (UPDATED)

By Connie Lee

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The Argonne National Laboratory is developing technology aimed at improving the 3D printing process, according to the principal investigator for the project.

Scientists at the lab — which is based in Lemont, Illinois — are examining ways to detect deficiencies while an item is being printed, Aaron Greco said.

“That’s kind of the main technical hurdle,” he said. “Nobody really knows as they are printing things if they are going to form a defect.” Rather, deficiencies in an item are usually found after it has already been printed, which requires the user to reprint the item and stop multiple times. Such defects include unwelded metal, he noted.

The standard process for metal 3D printing usually involves either using a laser across a bed of metal powder to weld the materials or spraying the components and melting them together with a laser, Greco explained. The complexity of the process can lead to defects.

To mitigate these problems, the laboratory is trying to “tune” parameters such as the power and the speed of the laser beam, he said. Part of this includes using high-powered synchrotron X-rays that allow the user to see the item from a submicron-level resolution, he said. However, this technology is not likely to be included in all 3D printers, he said, noting that it costs $100 million.

“You can see enough detail as you shine a laser onto that powder bed to see all these multi-physics processes happen in real time,” he noted. “The metal melting, the flow, the molten metal, the ejection of the powder, the recrunching of the metal as it resolidifies and the porosity formation” are all visible.

There are a variety of uses for 3D printing, including military applications, he said. Having the ability to print parts in the field lessens the military’s reliance on its supply lines, Greco noted.

“That supply line is a big source of risk in terms of being targets, so the less reliant you are on the supply lines, the more secure you are, the more mission-ready you are,” he said. The technology also has many aerospace applications because it can manufacture parts using materials such as alloys and aluminums, he added.

The lab is primarily focusing on 3D printing with metals, but is also examining the possibility of using polymers and ceramic materials, Greco said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify the location of Argonne National Laboratory.


Topics: Research and Development, Science and Engineering Technology

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