Exploring opportunities in additive manufacturing

Could 3D printing dominate the future of parts manufacturing? The United States Military is exploring opportunities in additive manufacturing and a lab at Penn State University is playing an important role.



Could 3-D printing dominate the future of parts manufacturing?

The United States military is exploring opportunities in additive manufacturing, and a lab at Penn State University is playing an important role.

We go inside the lab for the story.


A great design begins with a great idea.

It blends form and function to solve a problem.

In manufacturing, design is limited by tools and technique.

But the tools are changing, and the only limit is imagination.

Additive manufacturing has the potential to truly revolutionize manufacturing.

And an important aspect is the ability now to capture the manufacturing process in a digital environment.

The best analogy I have is Minecraft, right, where kids will play for hours putting little blocks in the right thing to create this intricate structure.

We can do that with this technology.

Additive manufacturing is the industry term for what you probably know as 3-D printing -- machines that use polymer or metal to build something one layer at a time.

Penn State's Applied Research Lab, or ARL, is home to some of the most precise equipment on the market.

With additive manufacturing, the machine doesn't care whether you're building a solid block or you're building a very, very thin wall structure.

And so if you think about, we could go 70 to 100 microns, basically, about half of a human hair.

We could build a wall that thick now out of metal.

And detail like that is changing some very basic assumptions.

One of the biggest things we see is challenging designers to think differently.

I mean, I joke, 'Well, why are holes circular?'

It's 'cause that's how we're used to drilling them.

They don't need to be anymore, right?

And just -- You can just sort of see their minds start to explode when they're like, 'What?

I don't have to have a circular hole?'

And so things like that, which is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to additive.

These machines haven't broken the mold -- They've replaced it.

You're watching what's called directed energy deposition.

It's just one of the machines at ARL's CIMP 3D facility.

Basically, how it works is, there's four copper nozzles down at the bottom of this cone that feeds powder out in all directions.

Then a laser comes down through the center of this portion.

Then anytime the laser's on and the powder's underneath it, the material will fuse into place.

It's like welding with uncanny accuracy.

The machines can create new objects and repair old ones.

It can even use multiple materials on a single build, metals like titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, and nickel alloys.

Powder bed fusion is a different approach.

They actually take a vat of powder, and they will scrape a small layer on the order of 20 to 60 microns across your building plane, and then the laser will solidify that layer.

The layers are so fine, complicated builds can take days.

But the precision is appealing.

One aspect that we're deeply involved with and have several, actually, ongoing programs is the application of the technology for sustainment of military systems.

For the military, additive manufacturing could mean parts on demand, saving time and money by keeping aging equipment in service longer.

But there's a catch.

A lot of the standards and protocols that we use for, you know, measuring the powder, the process, making sure it's repeatable and reproducible, isn't out there for additive yet.

Before a part can go into service, the results need to be predictable.

And that means extensive testing.

Qualifying a flight-critical component for the Department of Defense can take years.

Researchers want to know how the powder performs and if it can be reused.

The machines are continually tested for consistency.

The parts undergo even more scrutiny.

They're tested for strength and fatigue and examined layer by layer for anomalies.

But the attention to detail has led to a critical success.

The Applied Research Lab partnered with Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, to make this flight possible.

This is a historic moment, the Navy's first manned flight with a critical component created through the additive manufacturing process.

It's a titanium link and fitting, small enough to fit in your hand, one of four identical parts that helps hold an engine to the wing of a V-22 Osprey.

The piece was wired during the flight, letting engineers measure performance in real time.

This was just a demonstration, the first step towards formal certification.

But the Navy has already identified six additional safety-critical parts they plan to test over the next year, a clear signal the military is planning on a future with additive manufacturing.

I think it's on the rise, but there's a lot of, like, bumps to get through first.

It is very expensive.

So, people think that we're gonna be additively manufacturing everything, when that's not actually the case.

We're gonna be picking the things that would be best to additively manufacture to, like, lower the cost of them.

Bottom line -- Don't expect a 3-D printer like this in every home, at least not yet.

Sure, in 20 years, this is gonna be pretty mainstream.

I think even within the next three to five years, you're gonna start seeing it sort of used more frequently.

I sort of joke, nobody wants to be first, but then nobody wants to be last, either.