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Laser Techniques Manufacture 3-D Aluminum Composite Parts

Complex designed part made using selective laser manufacturing (University of Exeter)

Complex designed part made using selective laser manufacturing (University of Exeter)

Engineers at University of Exeter in the U.K. have devised a process using lasers to produce three-dimensional aluminum composite parts from inexpensive metal powders. The work of Ph.D. candidate Sasan Dadbakhsh and lecturer Liang Hao appears online in the Journal of Alloys and Compounds (paid subscription required).

Automotive and aircraft parts are often made from aluminum, which is relatively light, with other materials added to strengthen the basic aluminum. Traditional manufacturing methods, however, generally involve casting and mechanical alloying, which can be inaccurate and expensive, especially when the part has a complex shape.

Dadbakhsh and Hao applied a different approach, in this case selective laser manufacturing (SLM), where lasers create complicated parts from metal powders. The new techniques have the potential for manufacturing aluminum composite parts as pistons, drive shafts, suspension components, brake disks, and almost any structural components of cars and aircraft. The process also makes possible the production of lighter weight parts with innovative designs.

The Exeter team used the labs in the university’s Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing for the experiments. The researchers used a laser to melt a mixture of very fine powders — about 100 nanometers across — such as aluminum with an iron oxide combination added as a reinforcing material. A reaction between the powders results in the formation of new particles, which distribute evenly throughout the composite material.

The use of lasers is less expensive and more sustainable than other methods to make composites, which directly blend very fine powders. The reaction between the constituent elements caused by the laser releases energy, say the researchers, which also means materials can be produced at a higher rate using less power. Likewise, compared with other parts made from very fine particles, the parts made from laser-melted powders were more robust and easily produced, even those with complex shapes (example pictured at top).

“This advancement allows the rapid development of sustainable lightweight composite components,” says senior author Hao. “This particularly helps to save a considerable amount of material, energy and cost for the production of one-off or small volume products.”

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