Achieving high quality, industrial prints is not just up to the 3D printer hardware in question. As all in the industry know, software and, perhaps most crucially, materials play a vital role in the AM process. In fact, the development of 3D printable industrial polymers, metals and other material groups is a key driver in the AM sector—a reality which has not gone unnoticed by Colorado-based Elementum 3D.
Elementum 3D, formerly known as Sinter Print, is an R&D company specializing in the development of advanced metals, composites and ceramics for additive manufacturing applications. The company, which serves the aerospace, defense and other industrial sectors, has brought a range of innovative and high-performance materials to market, including aluminum and copper alloys. The company is also always developing and adapting new materials for AM technologies.
We recently spoke to Elementum 3D President Dr. Jacob Nuechterlein about the company’s current R&D efforts, its market-ready materials and its overall vision within the industry.
Taking on the difficult alloys
In seeking out materials to develop or adapt to AM, Elementum 3D has taken a particular approach. As Dr. Nuechterlein tells us: “We’re primarily going after the alloys that are difficult to machine.” In other words, the company is more interested in developing materials based on metals that pose challenges for all industrial manufacturing processes, such as tungsten, tantalum and, of course, copper.
Presently, copper is the only material of the aforementioned three that is available to buy. This in itself is a big achievement, as many companies across the industry have struggled to develop a 3D printable copper material. “We have copper that’s out on the market,” Dr. Nuechterlein emphasizes. “People are using it, we have clients currently printing with our copper.”
Tantalum, which is currently in development, is a particularly appealing metal for industrial applications as it offers a combination of high ductility, excellent biocompatibility, good corrosion resistance and a high melting point. Though not yet commercially available, Elementum 3D has had success with its tantalum alloy which it says will accelerate its release.
“We have several different alloys of tungsten,” Dr. Nuechterlein continues. “So there are options to give you different properties and really dive into different things. Tungsten is a good candidate for it because it costs about $400 an hour to be machined. Copper too, copper is so soft that’s it’s difficult to machine thin areas of it. Again, we’re going after the alloys that are difficult to machine.”
Aluminum, an industry favourite
There is, however, one type of material currently offered by Elementum 3D that conforms to traditional manufacturing processes, which has been difficult to adapt for AM processing: aluminum.
According to Dr. Nuechterlein, Elementum 3D’s Aluminum 6061 (A6061) is one of the company’s top products. “There are a couple of reasons that the A6061 is really popular,” he explains. “The first is that there’s name recognition—it’s one of the most common aluminum alloys used.
“There are companies that have 90% to 100% of their parts made from A6061, which I think is part of it as well. If you’re designing a part you already have the option in different design software programs to select A6061 because it has been used for manufacturing. In general, the material has good corrosion characteristics, high ductility, weldability, all those sorts of things.”
Within the additive manufacturing industry, Elementum 3D is one of the few companies that has found a way to successfully 3D print A6061—something it is understandably proud of. “It’s not something that you can print without our specific formulation,” Dr. Nuechterlein says. “We’ve had demonstrations at our facilities showing the difference between A6061 and our A6061 with special additives that make it printable. Ours works, others don’t.”
The ability to 3D print aluminum is owed in large part to Elementum 3D’s patent-pending Reactive Additive Manufacturing (RAM) technology, which has enabled it to process “previously unprintable aluminum materials” and to improve the properties of said materials.
Metal ceramic composites
3D printable ceramics are also in Elementum 3D’s pipeline, but to a lesser extent than metals. As Dr. Nuechterlein elaborates: “We don’t really work with any pure ceramics at the moment because laser powder bed technology isn’t really designed and set up for pure ceramics. We’ve steered more towards metal-ceramic composites, because there are all sorts of advantages to having the combined properties of a metal and a ceramic.
“You have the high stiffness, good corrosion resistance and high hardness of a ceramic and then the ductility, machinability and ability to make complex shapes with metals. With metal-ceramic composites, I think we’ve found a lot of room in all sorts of industries, from rockets and space to automotive and racing.”
In the automotive and racing industries especially, ceramic metal composites could come to play an important role because of their ability to offer high strength and lightweight properties.
“High stiffness to weight ratio is an incredibly important thing in automotive. In racing, that’s very important as well,” Dr. Nuechterlein adds. “It’s something you can do with an aluminum composite material. It would be impossible to get the high stiffness to weight ratio without adding ceramic. We can get a stiffness that is as high as titanium but still has the weight of aluminum.”
Colorado, the aerospace hub
Perhaps the most important industry for Elementum 3D is the aerospace and space exploration sector, which has quite a big footprint in the state of Colorado. In fact, an organization called the Colorado Space Coalition lists a directory of nearly 500 aerospace companies and suppliers operating in the state.
“There are more space companies per capita in Colorado than anywhere else in the world,” Dr. Nuechterlein tells us. “So there’s far more space development going on here than anywhere else as far as density. Our company has about 45 customers that are heavily using our products and the majority of them are in space and defense.”
This means that many of the applications that use Elementum’s 3D printing materials are space-related. For instance, the company is working closely with Masten Space Systems to prepare a lunar mission. In fact, Masten Space was recently selected as one of nine U.S. companies to participate in Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.
“In aerospace and specifically space, satellite parts and things like that are often made out of aluminum 6061, so we’re really diving into those applications,” adds Dr. Nuechterlein. “A company called Ball Aerospace has been using our A6061 to make airborne brackets and other parts.”