A researcher at TU Graz in Austria has developed a new steel powder for additive manufacturing that has the potential to simplify the production of complex parts. The material, which is modified for stability, can enable manufacturers to drastically reduce production costs and material waste while exploiting new levels of design freedom.
Within the metal AM market, stainless steel is an important material with a range of applications. According to estimates cited by TU Graz, the use of stainless steel powder in AM is increasing by over 30% every year. Still, certain challenges remain when working with steel powders, especially when using selective laser melting or similar additive technologies.
In these processes, the component is built up, layer by layer, using a laser. Throughout the process, however, it is often necessary to integrate support structures into the part to achieve complex geometries, such as overhangs, without the risk of sinking of deformation. In short, the more complex a part is, the more support structures will likely be needed—which drives up material usage and costs (especially those associated with post-processing).
Researcher Mateusz Skalon from TU Graz’s Institute of Materials Science, Joining and Forming, set out to find a solution to this challenge and has achieved something of a breakthrough. The researcher essentially modified conventional 316L stainless steel powder so that the particles’ surfaces would behave in a more stable way when liquefied by a laser in the 3D printing process.
The more stable powder, referred to as “NewGen SLM Powder,” has made it possible to produce increasingly complex structures without supports and, crucially, without the risk of collapse during the print process. According to Skalon, the modified powder can lead to 20% lower printing costs due to it needing fewer support structures. Skalon has calculated that costs can be reduced up to 114 euros per kilo of printed steel and adds that surplus steel powder from the print bed can easily be reused for future print jobs.
In the wake of his achievement, Skalon is now hoping to transition his research into the industry with support from TU Graz. The researcher is presently scaling up the modification process for the steel powder to bring it to market maturity. This is being done through the framework of the Spin-Off Fellowship of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG).
“We’ll be testing the powder on the most common laser melting systems in the next 16 months,” said Skalon. “Basing on this, we want to establish a production company in Austria directly after the Fellowship where purchased 316L stainless steel powder will be modified and sold. Target groups will include manufacturers of highly complex metal parts, manufacturing companies in the automotive, aircraft and mechanical engineering sectors as well as research institutions dealing with additive manufacturing methods.”
Understandably, Skalon’s project has already garnered interest from the business and industry sectors, and the researcher is confident that this interest will continue to grow. Ultimately, he hopes the spin-off will become an important player within the AM supply chain.