Have you sliced some vegetables lately with a new knife? If the surface doesn’t look like steel, it may not be. Ceramic blades have proven their ability to keep a sharp edge far longer than metal.
We live in an era of technology miracles, but some of the most amazing are practically invisible. Advanced materials are the hidden ingredients that make many technology advances possible. A mobile phone is covered in unbreakable glass that can still sensitively transmit the touch of a finger. Alloys that remember a pre-existing shape can, under application of heat, move mechanisms like motors or hydraulic systems. Cars and airplanes obtain ever greater fuel efficiency while providing greater safety because of metals that can be lighter and stronger than conventional steel.
Researchers adjust already existing alloys to work with new manufacturing technologies and develop new metals, ceramics, polymers, carbon fiber composites, and materials tools for different manufacturing processes. The materials can be tougher, harder, lighter, more elastic, or more environmentally friendly, letting companies make products never before possible.
One of the more promising areas of development have been in advanced materials for the set of technologies collectively called additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. The processes add bits of material at a time to build up products or parts, like sticking pieces of clay to a base until you have the item you wanted.
Additive technologies let companies quickly move from concept to finished items at costs “orders of magnitude” less than traditional methods like forging or casting, according to Jeff Schultz, Head of Additive Manufacturing Service Expansion for Oerlikon Metco.
Traditional methods are still today the standard in mass production. But for short runs, custom work, or producing prototypes as part of the design process, AM is a clear winner, both for cost and speed.
For complicated castings, the production lead time can be 18 months, according to Schultz. A company would create assembly lines and tooling for multiple components and then combine them into the final object while wasting material in the process. In additive manufacturing, a single process could build the final object without waste in hours, or even minutes.
The first benefit advanced materials are offering additive manufacturing is increased flexibility. So-called superalloys — metals that retain their strength at high temperature— are a boon in fields like motorsports, aerospace, or energy, where parts may be exposed to punishing temperatures, such as in jet turbines or industrial gas-fired power plants. Originally, superalloys were developed with expectations of casting or forging but their properties can make them difficult to weld or fuse together.
Additive manufacturing typically uses a heat-intensive fusing technique to deposits bits of molten alloy, which wasn’t compatible with many superalloys in wide use. However, advanced materials researchers have adjusted superalloy formulations to let the fusing process work while keeping within the material specifications manufacturers expect. Now companies can create small numbers of parts, or even one-off items, quickly and relatively inexpensively while using the materials most in demand.
The next step is for researchers to develop entirely new advanced materials that could help further transform additive manufacturing. “Today the alloys are the ones that have been used for decades,” Schultz said. “The future is designing new alloys for additive manufacturing” that can provide capabilities that have previously never been available, as well as ceramic and advanced composites. That could mean even more cost-effective and fuel-efficient transportation and energy production and materials that are environmentally friendly, stronger, or safer.
By Erik Sherman
Oerlikon Metco is a leading provider of metal-based powders for additive manufacturing systems. The company has 80 years of experience developing custom-design materials and optimized alloys.