Additive Manufacturing Lasered aluminium could supplant machined car parts

Editor: Eric Culp

Fraunhofer ILT and Concept Laser have developed a laser fusing machine to make large parts for the automotive industry, and aluminium is only the first of a range of metals to be used.

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For applications involving vehicle and engine technology, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG is turning to generative laser melting of metals.
For applications involving vehicle and engine technology, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG is turning to generative laser melting of metals.
(Source: Concept Laser)

Additive manufacturing with metals is becoming increasingly important in the automotive industry. Demands for reducing time and cost of production have been making this type of generative technology more attractive to carmakers, according to equipment supplier Concept Laser GmbH, Lichtenfels, Germany. Currently, the primary focus is on aluminium alloys that provide the basis for lightweight automobile construction.

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Developers partner with global carmaking giant

For applications involving vehicle and engine technology, as well as other areas, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG has been embracing the resource-efficient, generative process of laser melting of metals, the machine supplier said. In order to meet future demands, the global vehicle powerhouse relied on the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), Aachen, Germany, and Concept Laser to develop a laser melting machine with a build chamber size said to surpass anything constructed to date with an area large enough for an engine block.

Public to get first look at machine at EuroMold 2012

The X line 1000R machine for fabricating extremely large components is scheduled to be shown to the general public for the first time at Euromold 2012, Concept Laser said, noting that a machine is already in operation at Daimler.

The X line 1000R was developed for the tool-less manufacturing of large functional components and technical prototypes with material properties that are identical throughout the range. The centrepiece of the X line 1000R consists of a high-power laser in the kilowatt range, which is said to enable an increase in productivity of up to a factor of 10 when compared to standard laser fusing machines currently available on the market.

Fast designs for complex, lightweight parts

The machine was specifically configured to cater to Daimler's special requirements for automobile applications, according to the supplier. The carmaker's goal was to replace costly sand-casting and die-casting applications in early phases of development. In addition, the machine's “LaserCUSING” process is expected to offer the possibility of generating lightweight structures with a high level of rigidity that will permit weight-optimised geometries that at present cannot be produced in this manner with the manufacturing techniques available today. Concept Laser said such components will have almost no restrictions on the design.

The company told ETMM that this process, which fuses metal powders to create parts, could be expanded to include materials such as Inconel alloys, titanium and “any metal that melts” by as early as next year.

German government project spurs advances

The project partners got together as part of an aluminium generative research and development project in conjunction with the German Ministry of Education and Research. The machine maker said the Fraunhofer ILT, together with different partners from industry and Daimler, examined the laser fusing technology for production applications involving aluminium components. The industrial use for fabricating production components was previously restricted to smaller components or dental and medical technology, mainly as a result of the materials and costs. As part of the project, the application potential for manufacturing aluminium components for other areas of industry was also examined. The well-known characteristics of the production process include conservation of resources, independence from mould making and freedom of geometry as well as the speed of construction and development. Daimler appraised Fraunhofer ILT's work as a fundamentally new way of looking at manufacturing options with the aim of creating innovative and environmentally friendly products, Concept Laser said. From the point of view of the development partners, the groundwork is also said to have provided a solid basis for tackling the pressure of costs in production and safeguarding Germany's long-term future as a place for high-tech manufacturing.

Meeting tough requirements for the car industry

Daimler's demands as an industrial partner were a significant increase in the build-up rates, an improvement in the quality of the surface finish, reproducibility and reliability of the machine as a result of appropriate process monitoring, as well as the qualification of further aluminium series alloys for a range of applications. The Fraunhofer ILT, which has been one of the leading research institutions in the field of laser melting for over 15 years, supplied its know-how for designing the kW laser beam source and the matching optical lens system in order to ensure the desired build-up rates of different aluminium alloys. In addition, the process control for processing the different alloys alongside the machine construction was worked out and the mechanical properties of the components were examined, according to the machine builder.

From the drawing board to building the machine

The preliminary work now needed to be turned into “solid” machine technology. Parallel to this, the functional specification was drawn up at Concept Laser together with the partners, and the design phase for the machine was started. Discoveries which had been made in the meantime by the Fraunhofer ILT, e.g., in relation to temperature control of the build chamber to avoid any warping in the “oversized” components, and in relation to the design of the powder application system, were consistently implemented in the design of the machine. Concept Laser CEO Frank Herzog said, “This really was uncharted territory for us. The development of a machine concept of these dimensions in close collaboration with Daimler AG and the Fraunhofer ILT, based on our LaserCUSING technology, clearly illustrates our claim to be the technology leader in the field of laser melting.”

Herzog said the company's patented machine technology has been exported throughout the world for more than a decade, and this latest partnership could spur demand. “As a result of the co-operation project with Daimler and the Fraunhofer ILT, we hope that the generative machine technology will meet customers' requirements on a broad basis and that it can be employed profitably.”

For the development of parts Daimler, the high and flexible availability of such a machine opens up entirely new possibilities for further optimisation of the product development process, the company said.