DARPA wants to make complex 3D printing trustworthy, dependable, safe

DARPA sets up additive manufacturing technology reference labs

open manufacturing 619 316 DARPA

A laser beam heats a metal powder to additively build a product layer by layer.

If additive manufacturing technologies like 3D printing are to become mainstream for complex engineering tasks – think building combat fighter aircraft wings or complete rocket engines – there needs to be a major uptick in the reliability and trustworthiness of such tools.

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That’s what researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aim to do with its Open Manufacturing program which this week announced new labs and other facilities that will be used to develop these additive technologies and prove whether or not they can be trusted for widespread use in complicated applications.

“The challenge with additively manufactured parts is that they are typically composed of countless micron-scale weld beads piled on top of each other. Even when well-known and trusted alloys are used, the additive process produces a material with a much different “microstructure,” endowing the manufactured part with different properties and behaviors than would be expected if the same part were made by conventional manufacturing,” DARPA stated.

“Moreover, parts made on different machines may be dissimilar enough from each other that current statistical qualification methods won’t work. Accordingly, each ‘new’ material must be precisely understood—and the new process controlled—to ensure the required degree of confidence in the manufactured product. Success could help unleash the potential time- and cost-saving benefits of advanced manufacturing methods for a broad range of defense and national security needs.”

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Under the Open Manufacturing program DARPA said it has set up has two Manufacturing Demonstration Facilities (MDFs)—one at Penn State focused on additive manufacturing and the other at the Army Research Laboratory focused on bonded composites. It is expected that the Penn State lab would focus on calculating materials performance for direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) using a nickel-based super alloy powder. In DMLS a laser melts the metal powder to additively build a 3D product.  

       The Army Research Lab would focus on Titanium Fabrication (tiFAB) that combines physics- and data-based informatics models to determine key parameters that affect the quality of large manufactured structures, such as aircraft wings. tiFAB is a method that uses an electron beam instead of a laser to melt spool-fed titanium wire to build up a structure layer by layer, DARPA stated.

DARPA also said it was developing several advanced manufacturing techniques. One of these, MicroFactory for MacroProducts, uses more than 1,000 microbots, each smaller than a penny, that zip around like small insects to efficiently assembly truss structures. Microbots have fabricated 12-inch truss structures with integrated electronics as a proof-of-concept, showing the potential for massive parallelism where thousands of microbots could simultaneously and efficiently build intricate truss structures. This technology could be applied to rapid production of advanced electronics for military systems or constructing wings for very small unmanned aerial systems, for example.

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