Are 3D-Printed Metal Parts Flight-Ready? Physics Says Yes

(DGIwire) – Are 3D-printed metal parts high-quality enough to be safely used in aerospace vehicles? According to a survey conducted by DesignNews, some engineers have had doubts that additive manufacturing (AM) processes can produce components with good-enough mechanical properties. This is in spite of successful tests by NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne on rocket engine parts, the U.S. Air Force’s use of metal printing technology to repair aerospace components and GE Aviation’s plans for metal parts in its LEAP Turbofan jet engine, reports DesignNews.

To allay any doubts, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) recently decided to create two physics-based models for a commonly used metals AM process to describe exactly how it works at multiple scales. LLNL has been investigating AM for some time and has its own facility for metals AM. The two models were described in an article in the January 2016 issue of Applied Physics Reviews. Both of the models made it possible to examine how a range of variables—including laser power, beam size, speed and shape—ultimately affect the quality of a printed part.

“Although engineers are skeptical by nature and modeling can help guide them to an initial understanding of how metals AM works, the fact is that quality assurance becomes more a proactive, comprehensive and process-focused methodology when modeling is combined with real-time quality assurance as a tactical deployment structure on the factory floor,” says Mark J. Cola, President and CEO of Sigma Labs, Inc. “The results are streamlined operations and potential cost savings for the manufacturer.”

Sigma Labs has developed a proprietary, patent-protected, quality assurance software suite called PrintRite3D® that transforms the 3D printing process. In contrast to traditional quality assurance that is performed after-the-fact, PrintRite3D® works in real-time to assist quality inspectors in sorting acceptable from suspect components.

The PrintRite3D® suite benefits aerospace companies that are 3D-printing metal parts in three aspects. The first involves metallurgy: in addition to optimizing the structure/property/parameter qualities of metal parts, Sigma Labs’ software allows engineers to assess each part’s microstructure—scanning and collecting data on potential weaknesses (like “pores” in the metal). The second benefit involves geometry: the software helps capture images of every layer of metal as it is being incorporated into the part; this data, available digitally, gives inspectors the ability to detect any distortion or misalignment as parts are made and intervene in real-time. Finally, the software enhances a company’s productivity by collecting Big Data regarding the performance of multiple 3D printers at multiple locations into a single database.

With a core facility in Santa Fe, NM, Sigma Labs offers clients a comprehensive one-stop shop for 3D metal printing and process engineering; alternately, Sigma Labs can offer its suite to clients at their own facilities. The company has signed agreements with GE Aviation, Honeywell Aerospace, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Woodward for test and evaluation of its PrintRite3D® technology.

“Those involved in the metals AM process within the aerospace industry can continue to innovate knowing that technologies, such as ours, evaluates and accepts product in parallel with the process execution and observes the entire process execution,” Cola adds.

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