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Acoustic Monitoring – Is It The Key to Commercializing Laser-Based Additive Manufacturing?

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Laser based additive manufacturing

The additive manufacturing market is on the rise. As industry research estimates indicate, the global metal and polymer additive manufacturing market, with a valuation of 7.17 billion Euros in 2020, is expected to expand to 19.23 billion Euros by 2026. This growth trajectory suggests a nearly threefold increase within a span of six years.

A variety of industries are leveraging additive manufacturing to achieve their production goals. Notably, reports suggest that the aerospace, turbine, and helicopter sectors are leading the charge, occupying the largest share. This is closely followed by significant adoption within the medical industry.

With the growing size of the market and an ever-expanding range of applications, additive manufacturing has extensively diversified, both in form and applicability. A notable development within this realm is laser-based additive manufacturing. In the following sections, we will delve into its commercial potential and the significant role that acoustic monitoring could play in its successful application.

However, prior to exploring these aspects in greater depth, it is important to first understand what laser-based additive manufacturing actually involves.

What is Laser-Based Additive Manufacturing?

The MIT Sloan School of Management defines additive manufacturing as the “process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time. It is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing, in which an object is created by cutting away at a solid block of material until the final product is complete.”

Going by definition, additive manufacturing may mean any process of creating a product by building something up. But, in practicality, it refers to three-dimensional printing.

If we look at the history of 3-D printing, it started in 1977 when Wyn Kelly Swainson patented the targeted use of laser onto a tray submerged in liquid plastic, fusing a layer of solid plastic on top. In 1999, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine researchers 3-D printed a bladder. It came out to be the first 3-D printed organ in human history. The first functional 3-D printed furniture came into existence in 2005. A more large-scale industrial use of 3-D printing was when Boeing launched its FAA-approved 3-D printed titanium parts for the 787 Dreamliner.

Since the very beginning of additive manufacturing, lasers have been a crucial component. Laser Systems Europe, a Cambridgeshire-based publication for integrators and users of industrial laser systems for materials processing, defines laser additive manufacturing as a process where “a laser beam is used to fuse or melt successive layers of wire or powder material together to create a 3D object.”

The technology applies to a range of materials, including high-strength metal alloys to thermoplastics and resins. It is capable of creating complex shapes with a significant level of precision.

As technology advances, lasers are set to play a crucial role in shaping our future. Its application can be found amply in the fields of communication, defense, health, clean energy/ nuclear fusion, and more. The same is the case with laser-based additive manufacturing, as it, too, has diverse applications and many advantages.

Click here to learn how lasers are set to play a pivotal role in the coming decades as technology advances.

Types and Advantages of Laser-Based Additive Manufacturing

Laser-based additive manufacturing can be of different types, including powder bed fusion, direct energy deposition, material jetting, sheet lamination, and stereolithography.

One of its most defining advantages lies in its ability to help create complex structures with optimized geometries. Conventional techniques of additive manufacturing fail to achieve this level of precision.

The precision that laser-based additive manufacturing has to offer helps to cut down on the need for post-processing. It brings down material waste to its minimum and reduces energy consumption drastically when compared to what traditional manufacturing processes need.

Laser-based additive manufacturing processes are easy to automate and customize as per the exact need. The method's precision and automatability properties come together to make it an efficient solution for fast prototyping at notably lower cost points.

Since laser-based additive manufacturing does not require assembly, it can be created in exact accordance with the demand, where the process uses only the necessary materials without any excess or wastage. It also benefits our environment by reducing the carbon footprint generated from logistics, transportation, and waste management efforts.

Laser-Based Additive Manufacturing Application Areas

The application of laser additive manufacturing has a large scope. In the aerospace industry, for instance, it is instrumental in creating parts that are both high-performing and lightweight. This technology's benefits extend to the automotive industry, too, where it is used for producing essential components for engines, transmissions, exhaust systems, and brakes.

Additionally, laser additive manufacturing has a significant role in healthcare, particularly in crafting patient-specific complex designs. This includes a range of prosthetic solutions like hip and knee implants and dental implants.

In the realm of electronics, the precision of laser additive manufacturing is leveraged to create high-precision PCBs. This precision enables the production of electronic products with finer features, including antennas, sensors, and transistors.

The technology's potential is also evident in its application in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) manufacturing. Here, it facilitates the creation of intricate components such as accelerometers and gyroscopes.

In the energy sector, laser additive manufacturing proves beneficial for the repair of gas and wind turbine parts. It also plays a critical role in manufacturing components like impellers, valves, and heat exchangers. But despite the multifaceted usage potential of laser additive manufacturing, it has not yet become adequately commercialized.

Laser Additive Manufacturing: Lacking Commercialization

A 2016 study delved into the empirical analysis of the commercialization levels of laser additive manufacturing. This investigation estimated the size of the global industrial laser market, encompassing all laser sources, to be around US$3.3 billion. And within this expansive market, additive laser sources represented a portion of only US$100 million. Percentage-wise, laser sources constituted a mere 3% of the total market value.

The numbers could also be corroborated by qualitative information received from industry sources. For instance, in the aerospace industry, the regulatory atmosphere kept the use of laser additive manufacturing largely limited to prototyping and could not be deployed in commercial aircraft. Similarly, in the automotive industry, the certified use of laser additive manufacturing parts has only started recently.

The impending growth of laser additive manufacturing would, therefore, be dependent on finding its use in large manufacturing industries. Additionally, it would have to be fueled by innovations, articulating its potential more prominently than before.

Acoustic Monitoring: A Game Changer for Laser Additive Manufacturing

A core reason why laser-based additive manufacturing has not picked up the momentum it could have is linked to the challenge of unexpected defects. These defects are often not detectable by traditional methods, such as thermal imaging and machine learning algorithms.

Therefore, the capability to efficiently detect defects in real-time is crucial. This capability can significantly aid laser additive manufacturing in realizing its true commercial potential.

To explain in brief, the acoustic monitoring way of detecting defects in laser additive manufacturing is a real-time solution that works on the difference in the sound the printer makes during a perfect print and a print with flaws and irregularities.

While speaking of the relevance of acoustic monitoring as a means to detect defects in laser additive manufacturing, Professor Roland Loge, the Head of the Laboratory of Thermomechanical Metallurgy, EPFL's School of Engineering, said:

“Our research not only confirms its relevance but also underscores its advantage over traditional methods.”

The process is cost-effective, especially when it comes to the quality enhancement of products made through Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF). In the Laser Powder Bed Fusion process, a layer of powder is spread across a build platform. The laser beam is then used to selectively melt the powder in specific areas. After the fusion is complete, resulting in a solid object, a new layer of powder is spread on top again to repeat the process. This layer-by-layer repetition continues until the final product is achieved.

Click here for the list of top additive manufacturing and 3D printing stocks.

The Technology of Defect Detection through Acoustic Monitoring

The EPFL team devised the design in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa).

To meet their objective, the team deployed ultra-sensitive microphones inside the printing chamber. These microphones helped ascertain distinct shifts in the acoustic signal during regime changes, and eventually, they helped identify manufacturing defects.

The research brought value to the field of laser additive manufacturing, as researchers believe their findings will significantly impact laser additive manufacturing’s industrial applications, including the areas of aerospace and precision manufacturing.

Reflecting on the broader implications, many companies involved in laser additive manufacturing offer a variety of products and solutions. These firms are now poised to explore the study further to integrate the benefits into their processes. And in the following segments, we will look at some of these innovative and leading laser additive manufacturing players.

Top Companies Commercializing Laser-Based Additive Manufacturing

#1. IPG Photonics Corporation

Two of the laser additive manufacturing processes employ IPG lasers: LMD or Laser Metal Deposition and SLM or Selective Laser Melting. While SLM is instrumental in producing fully dense metallic parts with enhanced mechanical properties, the LMD process utilizes a nozzle to coaxially feed powder into the focused laser spot, facilitating the production of fully dense functional metallic components.

In enhancing these processes, IPG fiber lasers play a crucial role. They are pivotal in developing systems and processes that achieve faster powder build-up or powder deposition rates, especially at multi-kilowatt power levels.

The range of materials compatible with IPG’s laser additive manufacturing process is notably diverse, including, but not limited to:

  • Polymers
  • CoCr
  • Aluminum
  • Ti alloys
  • Stainless steel
  • Tool steels
finviz dynamic chart for  IPGP

Demonstrating the success of these technological advancements, IPG Photonics Corporation reported strong financial results for the year ended on December 31st, 2022. The company registered a revenue exceeding US$1.4 billion, with a net income attributable to IPG Photonics Corporation per common share (basic) of US$2.17.

#2. Laser Melting Innovations (LMI) 

An innovative laser additive manufacturing solution provider, LMI, works with the vision of making the technology accessible to companies of all types and sizes.

Its flagship product, The Alpha 140, deploys an air-cooled fiber laser with 200W power, compatible with processing stainless steel, nickel alloys, tool steel alloys and aluminum alloys. Its 140 µm focus diameter helps produce precise outputs with fine details and thin walls. Its spindle-driven axis system helps obtain high positioning and repeat accuracy.

The 1.75mX0.95 m dimensions of the system allow space efficiency in environments as well as research laboratories. Components produced by the Alpha 140 are comparable to those produced by the conventional LPBF machines in strength and density.

LMI was founded in 1996, and in 2020, it struck a collaboration with Kurtz Ersa, a machine builder that also offers additive manufacturing solutions to industries such as automotive, medical, and aerospace, to market the Alpha 140 via Kurtz Ersa’s worldwide distribution network with 24-hour service.

#3. Prima Additive 

Prima Additive, a division of the Prima Industries spa, offers Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF) or Selective Laser Melting solutions that leverage the thermal energy of the laser to fuse the section of an object to a layer of metallic powder.

The prima additive laser solutions prove effective when working towards complex geometries, small batch production systems, and prototypes. It has five solutions in total.

The Print Sharp 150 is effective in R&D applications for processing a variety of materials, such as steel, aluminum, nickel, titanium, and cobalt chrome alloys.

Moving to another model, the Print Genius 150 is distinct for its multi-laser technology's versatility. In contrast, the Print Green 150 variant utilizes a green laser, which is particularly useful for processing pure copper, copper alloys, and highly reflective materials.

And for larger-scale operations, the 300 Family solution fits the bill perfectly. It is designed for high-productivity scenarios and is ideal for manufacturing medium and big-sized components.

Lastly, the Print Genius 400 offers a highly automated option for producing large components up to 1 meter high.

Revenue-wise, Prima Industries Spa, the parent company of Prima Additives recorded a net revenue of more than 327 million Euros for the nine months ended on September 30, 2022. This was a considerable increase from the revenue of more than 281 million Euros recorded for the nine months ended on September 30, 2021.

The Future of Laser Additive Manufacturing with Acoustic Monitoring and More

With innovations continuing, it is only a matter of time before laser additive manufacturing reaches its true commercial potential. In the interim, acoustic monitoring steps in as a crucial tool. This technology will contribute to making manufacturing techniques more consistent. By detecting defects early and facilitating their correction, it is poised to significantly enhance product quality in the near future.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.