When Fabrisonic first introduced its unique ultrasound additive manufacturing technology a few years back it seems like something right out of a sci-fi movie. Even more so than the rest of 3D printing technologies. Since then the company has grown and evolved significantly and the good news is that today UAM technology is a lot more “normal”. This means it is now ready to be implemented into industrial processes and can support an even wider range of materials and applications. US government grants are pushing it in the right direction and the market potential is now becoming clearer. We sat down with CEO Mark Norfolk to understand exactly how high the Fabrisonic UAM technology can fly.
Davide Sher: Can we take a few steps back and discuss how UAM technology works and what it can do?
Mark Norfolk: “Leveraging ultrasonic welding, a technology first developed in the 1950’s, UAM combines the advantages of additive and subtractive fabrication approaches [read more about the Fabrisonic UAM technology here]. We’re building layer by layer and those layers are thin foils about 150 microns thick. We weld those down by basically laying a sheet or a piece of tape down and we roll the ultrasonic welding system over it. This is an acoustically tuned welding device that rolls in one direction. As it rolls, it vibrates perpendicular to the plane, so we generate a scrubbing motion. The vibrations of the two 20,000 hertz ultrasonic transducers are transmitted to the disk-shaped welding sonotrode, which in turn creates an ultrasonic solid-state weld between the thin metal tape and the substrate. The continuous rolling of the sonotrode over the plate welds the entire tape to the plate. Successive layers are welded together to build up height. This process is then repeated.”
DS: What is so unique about UAM?
MN: “The scrubbing motion generated by the ultrasonic device is particularly interesting in that when you put a high-power ultrasonic field around a metal, the metal flowability goes way up. This means that we can extrude metal very easily when it’s under that high-power field. Whenever we’re embedding anything, whether it be a sensor or a fiber or some sort of ceramic, really all we’re doing is milling a small channel. All of our machines are hybrid, so they have CNC capabilities in the same machine making this a very streamlined process.
DS: Does this mean UAM can be considered a cold metal additive manufacturing process?
MN: “Correct. The maximum temperature we see in the aluminum is probably 150°C, so this is a fairly cold process. That’s for a second at any given location, so it’s very low temperature.”
DS: What are some unique applications of the Fabrisonic AM technology?
MN: “We look at it as a tool box: a milling shop doesn’t just have a lathe, they have a lathe and a mill and a drill press; different tools require different skills. There are three areas where we’ve seen the most work done with our machines: one is dissimilar metals, so we can weld copper, stainless and nickel on the same part. The second is embedded electronics, for example, health monitoring applications where you want to get data out of a part at a very specific location. The third is really in complex internal shapes. While all 3D printing technologies can do well with complex geometries, our systems tend to migrate towards heat exchangers. That’s because we can process aluminum and copper – and we can do aluminum and copper together. This can provide significant advantages from a thermal perspective.”
DS: Is aluminum the main metal material you work with?
MN: “A lot of our commercial base is aerospace, so that led us into the aerospace aluminum grades 6061, 7075. So that’s what a lot of our business is, so that’s where we spend a lot of our time but the process is useful in pretty much any metal. We’ve worked with copper, molybdenum – ‘moly’, steel, nickel. We have even gotten into some of the refractory alloys. Usually, when we get into the really high strength stuff like refractories, it’s a combination of refractory and something else. For instance, a lot of our work is with electronic particles and so we use a cooling plate. That cooling plate needs to have a coefficient of thermal expansion that’s close to that of the electronics, so the cooling plates may start as copper or they may start as aluminum. The thickness will vary the composition with something moly, so that we have a gradient from the cold area to the area where the electronic chip is. Oftentimes, metals like moly or invar are ingredients in our films.”
DS: You also mentioned that you are now able to use support materials for pushing geometrical capabilities…
MN:“We have basically two different classes of support materials, the one we use the most by far is a water-soluble support material. As we build up, we get to a certain point that we can actually pour this material into a void, it takes a few minutes to set up, then we can continue to weld over it. When the part is finished, we use tap water to wash that support material out. For a larger void or larger areas, we have used things like a braze or a solder because we can basically melt it and pour it into a very large cavity and then continue pressing on it. When the additive process is done, we heat it back up and melt that material out. But for the most part, we use the water-soluble: it’s just faster, cheaper and easier.”
DS: These supports materials made Fabrisonic UAM technology attractive for advanced NASA JPL projects . How did that begin?
MN: “Every year NASA puts out calls relative to working with small businesses on certain topics (SBIR). We just put in a proposal. Phase One is a fairly small program, worth about one hundred thousand dollars. They give those out to a number of proponents and then select the one or two companies to go on to Phase Two, where most of the funding is allocated. We’ve actually had four Phase Two’s in the last five year and that has been very good for us.
DS: Commercially speaking, what is your business model?
MN: “We both sell machines and provide services using our internal systems. We have three different models: small, medium and large. The small machine which is the R-200. Our mid-size machine, which is the one everybody wants, is the Sonic Layer 4000 and has a build volume of about one meter by a half meter by a half meter, which is still pretty large. Our largest system is the Sonic Layer 7200, with a build volume of about two meters by two meters by one meter.”
Many of our customers come to us as for service. We make parts as a service and then they very often see the value in the process and start building more and more parts with us. Eventually, they get to a point where they have enough volume or it just makes sense for them to buy the equipment.
We are now eight people at Fabrisonic and we are looking to further expand our sales network and other key roles to support increasing demand. From a sales perspective, I do most of the direct sales, we go trade shows and certainly interact with customers in other ways. We also have an internal sales manager who handles all the website traffic and all the inquiries that come in from international markets. We will be installing a system in Spain soon.
DS: What is the Sonic Layer system installed base today?
MN: “We have four machines running internally right now that we use for production and the total installed base is under twenty machines.”
DS: How has the company evolved in recent years?
Back in 2012 and 2013, we had a cool technology that allowed us to do some things but there were maybe some missing pieces, we didn’t have a lot of experience and one of the big pieces we were missing was support material with our process. Over time we’ve received six U.S. government grants from different organizations for small businesses. Those are research contract that allowed us to do research that the government is interested and grow our business. In one of those programs, we devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to support materials. Some of the other things that we were able to do is really get down to some of the qualification, such as the one we carried out with NASA you probably saw the one on the NASA JPL heat exchanger. That was key in proving our ability to make repeatable parts that satisfy stringent airspace requirements. Another one of those programs was on embedded electronics and another large program spun out into developing metal matrix composites.
DS: Which do you see as some of the biggest challenges to overcome?
If you look at additive in general, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done on standards and on making sure that everyone can repeatably make the same part. We spent two years going through the qualification process with NASA and that’s a really important issue. It’s painful to do but it’s really important to make sure you have all that data, all the knowledge to make sure you have a repeatable process. I do think everybody is focusing and working on that.
For us specifically, our biggest effort right now is really looking at expanding into different materials. Most of our history is in aerospace aluminum and now we’re starting to work in steels, stainless steels, and Nickels. There’s some development there but that’s where we’re spending a large part of our research and development time.