3D Printing Aluminum Composite Parts

How additive manufacturing can make stronger, lighter parts for the aerospace and automotive industries.

(Image courtesy of the Centre for Additive Layer Manfacturing.)

(Image courtesy of the Centre for Additive Layer Manfacturing.)

Producing strong, lightweight and complex parts for aerospace and automotive industries is set to become cheaper and more accurate thanks to a new 3D printing technique developed by engineers from the University of Exeter. The research team has developed a new method for making three-dimensional aluminum composite parts by mixing a combination of relatively inexpensive powders.

Combining these elements causes a reaction that results in the production of particles that are 600 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Around 100 nanometers in size, the reaction uniformly distributes them through the material, making it very strong.

Selective Laser Melting Aluminum

The process is based on the emerging technique of Selective Laser Melting (SLM) at the University’s Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing. The new technique has the potential to manufacture aluminum composite parts such as pistons, drive shafts, suspension components, brake discs and almost any structural components of cars or airplanes. It also enables the production of lighter structural designs with innovative geometries leading to further weight reduction.

Dr Liang Hao of the University of Exeter added, “This advancement allows the rapid development of sustainable lightweight composite components. This particularly helps to save a considerable amount of material, energy and cost for the production of one-off or small volume products.”

To carry out this new technique, the researchers use a laser to melt a mixture of powders, composed of aluminum and a reactive reinforcing material (e.g., an iron oxide combination). A reaction between the powders results in the formation of new particles, which act as reinforcements and distribute evenly throughout the composite material.

The new materials have very fine particles compared with other composites, making them more robust. The reaction between constituents releases energy, which also means materials can be produced at a higher rate using less power. This technique is significantly cheaper and more sustainable than other SLM methods that directly blend very fine powders to manufacture composites.

University of Exeter PhD student Sasan Dadbakhsh of the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences said, “Additive layer manufacturing technologies are becoming increasingly accessible so this method could become a viable approach for manufacturing.”

For more information, visit the University of Exeter website.