Printing metals

A prototype of a mirror mount that scientists made using a new 3-D printing technique. The part at the top near the glass mirror is made of a metal with low thermal expansion, so that it won't shrink in space as much as most metals do. Using this kind of metal therefore prevents stress in the epoxy adhesive between the mirror and the metal. The bottom part of this mount is stainless steel, and could be connected to a stainless steel component of a spacecraft. Credit: JPL Caltech

3D printing has made significant progress in the last 15 years. It used to be a fast prototyping tools, then it moved to industrial manufacturing for special parts that are possible only through 3D printing to a (almost) consumer market product.

Now the progress continues in the direction of cheaper and more performant printers. It also continues in making it possibile to print new kinds of materials.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, NASA researchers have succeeded in creating a 3D printer that can print metals with different alloys in a angle printing process. This is needed for space crafts. An example is given in the photo, a mount for a telescope lens to be used in space at temperatures that are extremely low, so low that normal metals shrink significantly creating a strain on the insulation band fixing the lens to the mount.  For this part a specific designed alloy that presents minimal shrinking at low temperature is required, and this needs to mix seamlessly with the rest of the structure. 

The need for having a component presenting different physical characteristics in different places (like being magnetised in one point and not magnetised in another...) is common in many and the solution of welding two parts, each with its own characteristics is not ideal, since the welding spot is usually brittle and weaker than the rest. Having the possibility of manufacturing a single piece changing its characteristics during the printing phase is very interesting.

The researchers at the JPL have managed to do this by using different metal powder that are printed using a laser beam. As the printing progresses the powder mix is changed to create the desired characteristics.

3D printers will change the world of manufacturing in many sectors and this change will impact the distribution and supply chains. This is something being addressed in the EIT ICT Labs in the area of Cyber Physical Systems and in the related High Impact Initiative looking at Industry 4.0.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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