Laser-sharp innovation: NRC researchers take additive manufacturing to the next level

- London, Ontario

Parts for a variety of applications require complex structures to be manufactured in a cost-effective manner.

Whether in cars or trains, submarines, missiles, rockets or satellites, millions of metallic parts must work together harmoniously to propel modern vehicles. Many of these parts are custom-made for unique applications, and cannot be easily replaced. If they weaken or fail, the consequences can be catastrophic, so there's no time to be lost in repairing them.

Within the past decade, these and other industries have converted to additive manufacturing to repair or manufacture parts. This disruptive technology "prints" solid 3D objects from a digital file by depositing layers of material on top of each other, rather than starting with a piece of metal and cutting or milling it away. This means that companies can create complex structures and shapes more quickly and cost-effectively—especially in small volumes.

But basic additive manufacturing comes with limitations. The surface of metal components that have been manufactured using an additive process tends to be relatively rough, with often inferior mechanical properties. They therefore have to be machined to ensure precision and smoothness, which of course is not possible for many internal features. And since most parts made through additive manufacturing are inherently not as robust, they may not be strong enough to stand up to many applications that require high loads and vibrations.

A laser-sharp innovation

The laser-consolidation technique developed at the NRC allows for metal components to be produced without the need for machining surfaces.

Revolutionizing this scenario is an innovative laser-consolidation process that produces net-shaped metal components without the need for machining (with the exception of local contact surfaces). These components have mechanical properties comparable to respective wrought materials. Invented by researchers at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the platform is the first of its kind. It uses a patented set-up to direct a laser beam to build functional components, layer by layer, created directly from powder based on client computer-aided design (CAD) models. The beam also fuses metallic powder or wire to a substrate to create a highly resistant coating.

"The laser-consolidated materials we use (such as the nickel super-alloy IN-718) are metallurgically sound and free of cracks and porosity," says Lijue Xue, who works with the NRC's Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre. "In addition, the components that we produce show good surface finish and dimensional accuracy."

A pioneer in this type of technology, Xue points out that the NRC's world-leading expertise in materials science is also a unique resource that can be applied to related applications, such as the engineering of multi-materials for use in a single part to meet sometimes extreme requirements for material properties.

Indeed, the technology can be applied to any large-scale industry: aerospace, automotive, defence, marine, mining, medical devices, tool and die machining, etc. It's particularly helpful in building complex functional components and fixing parts that are otherwise irreparable. The same technology can also be used to produce low-cost, higher-performance tooling. And it's faster and cheaper than traditional methods for many applications.

From lab to market

The NRC has developed a laser consolidation system for additive manufacturing.

Now that this game-changing laser consolidation technology has been successfully tested and prototyped, it has been licensed to Oakville-based Burloak Technologies, a Canadian global leader in additive manufacturing. According to Burloak president Peter Adams, "The NRC has developed a truly revolutionary technology that will allow us to deliver additive components with never-before-seen resolution, accuracy, speed, and material choice, along with superior material properties."

The company will continue to work closely with the NRC to advance the technology and build commercially viable systems that can be readily adapted to various industries.

Precision metal impellers produced via laser-consolidated additive manufacturing. Left: as-consolidated. Right: after sand blasting.

"We'll be training Burloak staff and working closely with the company to help them build an infrastructure," underscores Lijue. "We believe that the stakeholders involved in this business—partners, clients and suppliers—can establish an entirely new industry ecosystem to increase Canadian competitiveness globally."

And that's what "made in Canada" is all about.

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