Like CERN, ITER, the ISS and Nasa’s rovers, NIF (National Ignition Facility) is a wonder of engineering and one of the largest and most complex machines created by humans. Its purpose is to ignite nuclear fusion, making it produce more energy than it consumes, using multiple high-power lasers. Like all the other machines mentioned, it is unique and highly complex so it makes sense that it uses AM for some of its parts. However what is of particular interest in this specific case is that AM was not able to meet the size and resolution requirements for certain, otherwise unweldable, parts: and that this has inspired an entirely new high-speed, multi-laser AM technology called Area Printing, which the startup Seurat is now ready to market.
Seurat’s Co-founder and CEO James DeMuth just published on Medium the story of how the company and the technology have come to be. Inspired not only by the NIF’s requirements but also, as the name implies, by art, as Georges Seurat was the post-impressionist painter who studied the science of light.
You should read the whole story, which is amazing, however, the main point that emerges is that he began looking at AM while, working at NIF, he identified laser PBF as the only process capable of producing parts using an otherwise unweldable steel-nanoparticle composite material, which was the only material capable of withstanding the Sun-like temperatures (600°C – 1100°F) generated inside the NIF main fusion chamber.
Part of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), the NIF houses 192 of the world’s most energetic lasers, all targeted at a single point. Just to put things into context, the lasers generate more energy in twenty billionths of a second than the entire US uses at any point in time. The problem is that to manufacture the entire chamber using laser PBF would take 200 years! Which is why – ultimately – along with co-inventors Bassem El-Dasher, Andy Bayramian, Joe Farmer and Sharon Torres, DeMuth began looking at a way to make PBF much faster without sacrificing resolution: this technology, which was co-developed with LLNL, now exists as Area Printing.
To be entirely fair, the technology sounds very similar to EOS’s announced LaserProFusion, which is also diode-based. Here it is applied to metals, which undoubtedly present a number of additional challenges compared to plastics. Based on LLNL’s Optically Addressed Light Valve (OALV), Area Printing works by patterning a laser beam with high-resolution images which can be programmed to block or let light through each of its pixels. This means that every pixel defines its own laser spot, effectively creating a multitude of individual lasers off of a single very powerful (5kW) laser. DeMuth and his team demonstrated in 2015 that it would be possible to use this system to weld a large area on the powder bed in an instant. In January 2021, Seurat (which was founded in 2016 and raised 33 million so far in venture capital), demonstrated printing stainless steel with mechanical properties that exceeded industry standards.
The company is now ready to scale and go to market. In fact, Area Printing is all about scalability: scaling volume to meet end-use production requirements, but also scaling size, to print the large parts demanded by industrial applications. Without the spatter and soot typically generated by full-melt metal AM processes, future Area Printing systems are aiming to meet industrial-sized challenges head-on.
Key areas of applications for Seurat have been identified as the automotive and consumer products industries. The next generation of automotive manufacturing faces unprecedented challenges to meet a market-moving rapidly toward electrification. Agile yet resilient supply chains will be needed to respond to changing product needs. Area PrintingTM brings all the advantages of AM in a scaleable product that can meet the volume and price demands of the industry while delivering the quality required for end-use automotive components. While high accuracy with high volume are two attributes not normally associated with metal additive manufacturing. These technical barriers have so far limited the uses of metal AM in consumer tech to prototyping and high-end customized solutions. Area Printing’s two million points of laser light offer micron-scale resolution with massive parallel processing – unlocking the capability to print high volume, net-shape parts without tooling. Let it shine.