The LENS CRADA start-up meeting was held at Sandia/New Mexico Nov. 20-21. Industry will contribute $1.2 million and $304,000 in in-kind services; DOE's Technology Partnership Program, $1.0 million; and Sandia's Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, which funds speculative defense-related research, $0.5 million.
Members of the CRADA range from Fortune 500 companies to small, recently started ones. They are AlliedSignal Inc., Eastman Kodak Co., Hasbro Inc., Laser Fare Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., MTS Systems Corp., Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) Co., Optomec Design Co., Teleflex Inc., and Wyman-Gordon Co.
"Additional companies can join if their application receives the approval of all the partners," says Jim Searcy, Director of Sandia's Manufacturing Technologies Center 1400.
The technology produces shapes close enough to the final product to eliminate the need for rough machining.
Nozzles each direct a stream of metal powder to a central point beneath them. Simultaneously, that point is heated by a high-powered laser beam. The laser and jets remain stationary while the model and its substrate are moved to provide continually new areas on which to deposit metal.
Project manager Clint Atwood (1484) explains how the technique works: "We slice a CAD [Computer-Aided Design] model in horizontal sections, then move the part beneath the laser as we add metal to fill in that layer."
Says Duane Dimos, Manager of Direct Fabrication Dept. 1831, "The process produces materials with outstanding mechanical properties - very high strength and high ductility." Another plus, he says, is the ability to mix powder streams of different materials. "Our goals are to make intricate material combinations in complex geometries out of hard-to-machine materials," says Jon Munford, Manager of Mechanical Process Engineering Dept. 1484.
According to Glen Lichtenberg, an Eastman Kodak mechanical process engineer at the meeting, "We expect the new process to produce unique features in mold cavities [the business part of the mold], which will allow some competitive advantage." In addition to film, Kodak, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., makes a variety of processing equipment and optical devices.
LENS technology was initiated at Sandia in 1995 through a Laboratory Directed Research and Development project because of the Labs' interest in low-volume production of highly specialized nuclear weapons components.
"Because Sandia's Defense Program needs are so specialized, this technology is important for us and should provide a powerful fabrication tool for complex shapes and materials," says Bob Eagan, VP of Physical Sciences & Components Div. 1000.
While the LENS technique has worked in Sandia's laboratories, the purpose of the CRADA is to produce an industrial tool that works automatically, robustly, and without constant supervision by a lab attendant.
The CRADA team also will provide a commercial design definition for LENS equipment, making it possible for one or more of the membership to offer LENS equipment as a commercial product.
Cost of the machines, he estimates, will be in the $350,000 to $500,000 range. The physical system is roughly eight feet long, eight feet high, and 3.5 feet deep.
"It's pretty hot stuff," Keicher says.
The company intends to make sample parts on demand for potential customers to show what the technique can do and how quickly it can do it.
While other universities and laboratories are pursuing similar research (notably the University of Michigan and Los Alamos National Laboratory), the Sandia CRADA is the first large-scale partnership created in this field.
Problems to be worked out include "dimensional accuracy - the process isn't quite precise enough," says Clint, "and achievement of a better finish on the metal." The finished product now has a slightly corrugated surface.
LENS extends earlier techniques of rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing. Those earlier techniques, now a $1 billion industry, use lasers to heat plastics into liquid and then form prototypes from the plastic. That process decreased the waiting period from months to weeks between conception of an idea and its appearance as a product on the market.
"When LENS gets going, $1 billion will be a small number," says Jim.
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