Sandia Lab News
December 5, 1997

Intense hopes: Ten companies team to commercialize Sandia's powder-to-parts net shaping technology

Computer-controlled lasers can create complex custom parts or molds from metallic powder in a day

Neal Singer

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Commercialization of a possibly pivotal manufacturing technology - computer-controlled lasers that, in hours, weld air-blown streams of metallic powders into custom parts and manufacturing molds - is the goal of 10 companies teaming with Sandia in a new cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) funded for $3 million over the next two years.

LASER SHAPING - Researcher Lane Harwell (1484) makes an 11-inch-high mini-skyscraper of the T-bird emblem using Sandia's Laser Engineered Net Shaping technique. Ten companies are teaming with Sandia in a two-year, $3 million cooperative research and development agreement to commercialize the technology. (Photo by Randy Montoya) (Click on image for page containing larger view)
The technology is called LENS, for Laser Engineered Net Shaping. When perfected, it should provide the companies involved in the CRADA a lead of several weeks in bringing to market new products ranging from toys to tools, as well as the capability to quickly vary the shapes and materials of products as market conditions shift.

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.

Small lots of high-density parts

The purpose of LENS is to make small lots of high-density parts or molds, a difficult operation because high temperatures make it hard to form accurate, smooth objects from molten metals.

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.

Layers build one at a time

Layers deposit sequentially - first on a substrate, and then on the built-up layers - until the desired cross-sectional geometry is completed with production of a three-dimensional metal product.

Sample work pieces show versatility of LENS technique. (Photo by Randy Montoya) (Click on image for page containing larger view)
The vision of producing a manufacturer's mold or custom part in a day has interested American industry for years. In 1994, when LENS was still only a dream, a video by Sandia's Visual Communications Department on why the US should support development of LENS technology - "Advanced Manufacturing: The Vision" - won a special award at the US International Film and Video Festival from the National Association of Manufacturers "for the audio visual production which best represents the US manufacturing industry." The film warned of possible foreign dominance of the powerful manufacturing technique unless a commitment was made to move ahead in America.

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.

'It's pretty hot stuff'

Dave Keicher is vice president of Optomec, a small Albuquerque company that has opted to produce LENS as a commercial product. The 13-year-old company has had annual sales of $350,000 until this year, when requests for preliminary LENS technology drove sales to more than $1 million, including the sale of a LENS machine to Ohio State University for research purposes.

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.

One billion to be a small number

Says Dave Abbott, development manager for AeroMet, a subsidiary of MTS Systems Corp., "At AeroMet, we already have our own laser deposition process. But we're planning on leveraging the technical resources of the LENS consortium to enhance our process in three basic areas: parameter development, system enhancement, and software development."

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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