The great promise of “additive manufacturing” stands as an existential threat to standard metal forming processes: converting CAD-based programs into .stl file format, to produce sequential “layers” of metal powders, each one fused to the next until a three-dimensional part is formed, represents a potentially cost-saving alternative to volume manufacturing requiring patterns, dies, and a plant-scale infrastructure. Some mainstream manufacturers are adopting 3D printing, laser sintering, and various other AM processes – just to stay involved, or to have future options. They’re trying to keep up the pace of development.
And then there is Alcoa. The aluminum and titanium producer is co-opting additive manufacturing by instituting a new production process that combines some of its design advantages with established forming technologies.
Thus, Ampliforge™, a process Alcoa unveiled recently as proof of its research and development capabilities, and a signal of what is to come from a new capital investment in those programs.
Alcoa outlined a $60-million expansion plan for its R&D center outside Pittsburgh, an initiative it claimed would enhance its development capabilities for additive manufacturing materials and processes. The new process it revealed is said to be among several that are forthcoming from Alcoa’s research efforts.
Ampliforge works with parts designed and produced by Alcoa using 3D printing, and completes the manufacturing process by using a more standard process, i.e., forging. The implication is that 3D printed parts may advantages in terms of production time and design flexibility, and yet the parts that are produced may lack the structural or mechanical attributes that a formed or machined part offers. According to Alcoa, with Ampliforge it has demonstrated that it can enhance the properties of 3D-printed parts, e.g., hardness and strength, compared to AM parts without further treatment.
Alcoa also said the Ampliforge process reduces material input and simplifies production compared to standard forging sequences.
Ampliforge is being developed on a pilot scale at plants in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
The Alcoa Technical Center expansion project is underway now, and is expected to be completed in Q1 2016.
Alcoa said its development efforts would concentrate on materials and technologies for a range of 3D printing capabilities in demand for parts in the aerospace, automotive, medical, and building and construction markets.
The emphasis on additive manufacturing marks a new phase for Alcoa, following a recent, and sustained concentration on high-value processes and materials for aerospace engines and structures. AM also re-emphasizes the significance of Alcoa’s acquisition earlier this year of RTI International, an organization that includes several additive manufacturing capabilities that complement Alcoa’s existing resources.
With the new AM research capabilities, Alcoa identified a three-part strategy: developing and producing proprietary aluminum, titanium, and nickel-based powders for 3D printing; combining AM design and production processes, as with the Ampliforge example; and applying its testing and process control capabilities to resolve certification processes for new 3D-printed parts, “starting with aerospace applications,” according to its statement
“Alcoa is investing in the next generation of 3D printing for aerospace and beyond,” stated chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. “Combining our expertise in metal alloys, manufacturing, design and product qualification, we will push beyond the limits of today’s additive manufacturing. This investment strengthens our leadership position in meeting fast-growing demand for aerospace components made using additive technologies.”