Spotlight: Additive manufacturing

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2017

Dr Phil Carroll, founder and CEO of LPW Technology Ltd, talks to Ellis Davies about the PowderTrace smart hopper. 

Tell me about LPW Technology Ltd.

LPW focuses wholly on additive manufacturing (AM), and this year we’re celebrating ten years of developing, processing and supplying high-quality metal powders and designing end-to-end solutions for powder handling and management for the AM industry. We invest strongly in R&D and have our own in-house laboratories, AM machine and spheroidiser. In 2017, we are constructing a purpose-built £20 million facility to expand operational capacity.  

Why are metal powders so important?

We view AM from the perspective of the powder. The end properties of the component are highly dependent on the powder characteristics, so it is crucial to use correctly specified powder every time to avoid failed builds or poor mechanical properties in the end product. Problems with contamination, oxygen pick-up and particle size distribution, among others, can compromise the integrity of the final built part. LPW has developed PowderTrace to not only minimise the risk of contamination, but monitor and record powder environment, adding traceability in metal powder production through repeated AM builds.

What problems does contamination cause in AM?

Different types of contamination cause different problems depending on the material.  For example, cross-powder contamination can produce high-density inclusions in the part, leading to defective or failed builds, oxygen levels can have a detrimental effect on mechanical performance in titanium alloys and nickels at high temperatures and humidity can affect flow and consistency of powder layer formation on the laser bed. Any contamination has the potential to cause failed builds.  

What does PowderTrace offer the AM industry?

As serial AM production becomes a commercial reality, accurate tracking of the component’s history is essential. The data PowderTrace records adds confidence in the powder’s condition. It can also be uploaded to PowderSolve, LPW’s AM quality control software package, managing data from powders across multiple locations and machines, potentially eliminating the need for ever more complex spreadsheets to track component history.

Monitoring metal powder during transportation, storage and repeated use increases confidence in its condition. By understanding the composition of the feedstock pre-build, potential changes to the mechanical properties of the final built part can be recognised and variability attributable to the powder can be eliminated or mitigated. 

How is PowderTrace used and operated?

The PowderTrace units are robust – they’re fabricated from medical grade stainless steel and have a capacity of up to 450kg of metal powder. The contents can be unloaded directly into the AM machine via a hygienic butterfly valve. Adaptors are available for all AM machines, and the unit can be fitted with a stand to facilitate loading.

Using the PowderSolve software, the data can be integrated into enterprise resource planning systems. This gives manufacturers a clear overview of production status and enables full tracking of the material throughout the powder lifecycle, creating a fully traceable metal powder history from source to component.

What are the benefits of PowderTrace?

Understanding feedstock condition enables the user to be alerted to any potential problems, and offers the potential to eliminate variability of the mechanical properties of a built part due to powder-related performance.  

The ability to trace and control metal powders is crucial, particularly in safety critical sectors such as aerospace, medical and automotive. The data collected from PowderTrace, when combined with PowderSolve, can enable accurate tracking of component build history for effective quality assurance and confidence in component reliability.  

What are the key features?

The units are charged with an inert gas to protect the powder from the influence of the external environment. Sensors in a self-contained module integrated into the hopper constantly monitor oxygen, humidity, temperature and pressure, and the data is wirelessly transmitted. Weight monitoring via load cells on the three feet of the hopper confirms the mass of powder available for use. Tamper evident fittings on valves and openings indicate if the container has been opened or interfered with.

Will this product impact end-users’ businesses?

In addition to the corporate consequences of a failed AM component, for manufacturers the machine downtime, production setbacks and lengthy investigations are a costly disruption to the production process. Confidence in the powder’s condition steers any fault finding exercise, allowing production problems to be quickly identified, and minimising lost production time.  

There are also fewer containers to account for, QR codes and material colour coding for easy powder identification, simplified stock control, reduced administration, saved time and environmental benefits.  

Is LPW designing other products around PowderTrace?

PowderTrace and PowderSolve are integral components of LPW’s PowderLife, an AM powder lifecycle management solution that controls and manages the traceability and quality of metal powders within the AM process. It is focused on ensuring that production users in safety critical applications have the confidence to use metal powder repeatedly, through multiple AM build cycles for serial component manufacture.

EOS launches new software

E-manufacturing solutions company EOS has presented the newest version of its comprehensive additive manufacturing CAM environment, EOSPRINT 2.0. The software introduces a workflow-based approach for the graphical user interface reflecting the AM CAM process, as well as new plane segmentation capabilities.

The software enables various layer thicknesses to be used in the part. The user can split the part along a plane to be shifted in z-level to define segments, which gives engineers the ability to strengthen parts in exact areas. 

EOSPRINT 2.0 can be fully integrated into automated workflows, and pairs with CAD/CAM and ERP/MED environments. EOS says that the system can increase productivity and provide cost savings. 

Volkmann’s new handling system

Volkmann, USA, has introduced its new AMMHAS system, which is designed to enhance the handling of metal powders or toxic materials for additive manufacturing. Comprising three elements, the system recovers unused materials, screens them and returns them to the machine or container for future use. 

The system has been successfully used in operations using tungsten, cobalt, silver powder, iron, stainless steel, alumina, nickel chrome, copper, chrono K20, carbide dust, corundum and G.62 in bulk densities, used in a normal air environment and under an inert gas. 

Renishaw exhibits the RenAM 500M

Global engineering company Renishaw showcased its flagship additive manufacturing machine, RenAM 500M, at the 2017 Paris Air Show in June. The RenAM 500M uses laser powder bed fusion technology, which, the company says, can offer increased automation and reduced operator time. 

The product in designed specifically to produce metal components on the factory floor, and features automated powder and waste handling systems and a system build volume of 250 × 250 × 350mm. 

Stratasys reveals Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator

At the 2017 RAPID & TCT show in Pittsburgh, USA, additive manufacturing company Stratasys, USA, unveiled its Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator, which it says represents a significant step forward in low-volume, continuous production using AM. The product will be targeted at sectors that can benefit from zero tooling production, zero inventory supply chains and rapid prototyping labs.

The platform is based on fused deposition modelling and comprises a modular unit with multiple 3D print cells that work simultaneously. This is run by central cloud based architecture, and can produce a continuous stream of parts with little operator influence. Each cell is able to carry out a different job, allowing the platform to take on mass customisation projects. 

Currently in beta, manufacturers, designers and university labs are testing the platform before reaching commercialisation.

Bridging the gap

Link3D is set to launch a service to connect industrial businesses with additive manufacturers.

The network has received 100 certifications in 24 countries, and the company is looking to expand this further. It says that the system will allow secure file transfer and price transparency, as well as real-time quotes for manufacturers looking to print prototypes. 

Link3D claims that its aim is to make additive manufacturing accessible to anyone, anywhere at any time, primarily serving industries focused on metal and polymer production. 

A first for Singapore

As 3D printing becomes a big part of Singapore’s industry, local company 3D Metalforge has opened its 3D Metal Additive Manufacturing Centre (AMC), which will provide a full range of metal 3D printing solutions and services. The facility is the first of its kind in the area.

The AMC offers a full range of 3D printers for prototyping and small batch production, and has also signed two new technology development agreements for the first large format laser aided additive manufacturing (LAAM) technology for industrial applications.