By:  Geoff Giordano

ORLANDO, FL, Dec. 19, 2011— The fourth-annual Laser Additive Manufacturing Workshop in Houston takes a bold leap forward in 2012 as the Laser Institute of America creates a special slate of instruction focused exclusively on rapid manufacturing.

Whereas the two-day session has centered primarily on laser-based rapid prototyping and powder and wire cladding to repair corrosion and wear, LAM 2012 will spend one day on those traditional applications and devote a full day to 21st century strides in sintering and 3D printing. The Feb. 29 – March 1 workshop convenes in Houston once again because of the laser’s vital role in the region’s oil and gas industries.

Embracing the Future

Renowned U.S. rapid-manufacture expert Terry Wohlers, who lent his expertise to The Economist’s February 2010 edition featuring a cover story titled “Print Me A Stradivarius,” has been invited to address attendees. In a story titled “The Printed World,” he noted that more than 20 percent of the output of 3D printers is final products; he expects this to rise to 50 percent by 2020.

“Additive manufacturing systems that produce parts in metal have progressed tremendously in 10 short years,” notes Wohlers, who began his consulting firm Wohlers Associates (wohlersassociates.com) in Fort Collins, CO, 25 years ago. “Some of the parts approach the mechanical properties of wrought materials and exceed those of cast parts. This is not in all cases, but it is not uncommon.”

Additive manufacturing permits designers to produce highly complex shapes and features that would be difficult or impossible to produce any other way, he notes. “This is allowing companies in aerospace, medical and other industries to explore more advanced designs that dramatically reduce material, cost, weight and carbon emissions.”

A prime example is the “Airbike” built in March by the European Aerospace and Defense Group (EADS) in Bristol, U.K. The bike is so named because of Airbus’ reliance on the additive layer manufacturing process, EADS notes. “Made of nylon but strong enough to replace steel or aluminum, it requires no conventional maintenance or assembly,” EADS says on its website. “(The bike) is ‘grown’ from powder, allowing complete sections to be built as one piece; the wheels, bearings and axle being incorporated within the ‘growing’ process and built at the same time. The Airbike can be built to rider specification so requires no adjustment.”

Dr. Bill O’Neill of Cambridge University, who noted the Airbike during his presentation at LIA’s first Lasers for Manufacturing Event (www.laserevent.org) in September, said additive processes are supplanting the Victorian manufacturing model. Dr. Ingomar Kelbassa of Germany’s Fraunhofer ILT and RWTH Aachen University concurs.

“We’re not talking about rapid prototyping any longer; we are talking about rapid manufacturing out of metals, polymers, out of any kind of ceramics,” Kelbassa says. “This is a paradigm shift in manufacture. From the Stone Age, we have been producing parts subtractively; we are removing material. You are throwing away 90 percent. Subtractive manufacturing isn’t as effective as additive manufacturing in terms of saving material, time or money. Now we are talking about … building up the part from scratch.”

In other words, what was once the realm of science fiction has become reality.

“Remember ‘Star Trek’?” Kelbassa asks. “’Replicator: Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.’ The cup is there with the tea in it. It’s just there, additively manufactured.”

Laser Additive Offerings

Besides the Airbike, highly localized personalized laser additive manufacture has been explored with great success within the past 10 years, he notes. For example, larger parts such as bumpers can be manufactured additively stereolithography. And since 2002, Germany’s BEGO has been using what Kelbassa calls Selective Laser Melting (SLM) to produce patient-specific dental bridges, implants, and crowns.

“This was the first industrial implementation,” Kelbassa says. “From the material point of view, from the maturity point of view, from the technology readiness point of view, (SLM) is ready for industrial implementation.

Wohlers notes that CE certification for the process in Europe four years ago has allowed many European manufacturers to produce orthopedic implants using additive manufacturing. For instance, he says an estimated 15,000 acetabular hip cups manufactured in Ti-6Al-4V titanium alloy have been implanted into patients.

“Earlier this year, the FDA approved the use of electron-beam melting for the production of a similar orthopedic product, which marks another milestone,” Wohlers says.

The possibilities are nearly endless. “It’s a pretty short process chain: All you need is the CAD data, all you need is powder, and if you have the CAD data and the powder additive you can produce the part,” Kelbassa says. He imagines a 24/7 global manufacturing process. For example, a Europe-based company with facilities in the Far East and South America can work in three eight-hour shifts: Upon completion of the first shift in Asia, data is transferred to Europe for a second shift, and after that shift the data is sent west again for the third shift.

At the moment, he says, part size is a restriction. And Wohlers notes the cost can be prohibitive, “but a number of service providers own machines and build parts for others.”

At LAM, both men will impress upon attendees that a new generation of engineers is required to take full advantage of what additive manufacturing has to offer.

Discover It At LAM

LAM will once again feature cutting-edge presentations and exhibits by platinum sponsor Alabama Laser, gold sponsors IPG Photonics Corporation, Fraunhofer USA and Joining Technologies, Inc., silver sponsors Coherent, Inc. and Laserline Inc., bronze sponsor TRUMPF, Inc. and others.

Wayne Penn, president of Alabama Laser, and Keith Parker, senior business development manager at Coherent, say they are “excited” to attend LAM 2012. Parker is considering presenting a paper on his firm’s new high-deposition procedure using 8 kilowatt lasers and a 24mm-wide beam to lay down 20mm clads in a single pass. The method could be valuable to the oil and gas industry in cladding the sort of massive shafts used in offshore rigs, he notes.

Looking ahead, Parker — a former F-14 Tomcat pilot — readily sees the possibilities additive manufacturing could offer the military. Imagine an aircraft carrier crew that needs to replace parts during a deployment but can’t take up valuable space on the ship with those spares. In fact, many parts encountered in military service are 40 or more years old; often the blueprints or manufacturers no longer exist, Parker says.

“So where do you get parts when you need them?” he asks. “In a lot of cases they really need to be able to build up those parts. If you had one of those (laser additive) machines on an aircraft carrier and something broke, you could get a CAD model and create it from scratch.” Aerospace, too, he notes, is a likely beneficiary of such technology, because of the complex 3D structures required for turbine engines.

To find out more about what to expect, read coverage of last year’s LAM workshop in the March-April 2011 issue of LIA’s newsletter, LIA Today, available online at http://lia.org/subscriptions/lia_today.

For more information about LAM 2012 and to register, visit http://lia.org/conferences/lam.