Selective laser melting
Selective laser melting (SLM) is an additive manufacturing process that uses 3D CAD data as a digital information source and energy in the form of a high powered laser beam (usually an ytterbium fiber laser) to create three-dimensional metal parts by fusing fine metallic powders together.
The industry standard term, chosen by the ASTM F42 standards committee, is laser sintering, although this is acknowledged as a misnomer because the process fully melts the metal into a solid homogeneous mass. The process is also sometimes referred to by the trade names DMLS or LaserCusing. A similar process is Electron beam melting (EBM), which, as the name suggests, uses an electron beam as the energy source.
What is called selective laser melting started at the Fraunhofer Institute ILT in Aachen, Germany, in 1995 with a German research project, resulting in the so called basic ILT SLM patent DE 19649865. Already in this pioneering phase Dr. Dieter Schwarze and Dr. Matthias Fockele from company F&S Stereolithographietechnik GmbH (located in Paderborn, Germany) worked together with the ILT researchers Dr. Wilhelm Meiners and Dr. Kurt Wissenbach on the technology. In the early 2000s F&S entered into a commercial partnership with MCP HEK GmbH (later on named MTT Technology GmbH and then SLM Solutions GmbH) located in Luebeck in northern Germany. Today Dr. Dieter Schwarze is with SLM Solutions GmbH and Dr. Matthias Fockele founded Realizer GmbH.
The process starts by slicing the 3D CAD file data into layers, usually from 20 to 100 micrometres thick, creating a 2D image of each layer; this file format is the industry standard .stl file used on most layer-based 3D printing or stereolithography technologies. This file is then loaded into a file preparation software package that assigns parameters, values and physical supports that allow the file to be interpreted and built by different types of additive manufacturing machines.
With SLM thin layers of atomized fine metal powder are evenly distributed using a coating mechanism onto a substrate plate, usually metal, that is fastened to an indexing table that moves in the vertical (Z) axis. This takes place inside a chamber containing a tightly controlled atmosphere of inert gas, either argon or nitrogen at oxygen levels below 500 parts per million. Once each layer has been distributed each 2D slice of the part geometry is fused by selectively applying the laser energy to the powder surface, by directing the focused laser beam using two high frequency scanning mirrors in the X and Y axes. The laser energy is intense enough to permit full melting (welding) of the particles to form solid metal. The process is repeated layer after layer until the part is complete.
Most machines operate with a build chamber of 250 mm in X & Y and up to 350 mm Z (although larger machines up to 500 mm X,Y,Z and smaller machines do exist). The types of materials that can be processed include stainless steel, tool steel, cobalt chrome, titanium & aluminium. All must exist in atomized form and exhibit certain flow characteristics in order to be process capable.
The types of applications most suited to the SLM process are complex geometries & structures with thin walls and hidden voids or channels. Advantage can be gained when producing hybrid forms where solid and partially formed or lattice type geometries can be produced together to create a single object, such as a hip stem or acetabular cup or other orthopedic implant where oseointegration is enhanced by the surface geometry. Much of the pioneering work with SLM technologies is on lightweight parts for aerospace where traditional manufacturing constraints, such as tooling and physical access to surfaces for machining, restrict the design of components. SLM allows parts to be built additively to form near net shape components rather than by removing waste material.
Tests by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which is experimenting with the technique to make some difficult-to-fabricate parts from nickel alloys for the J-2X and RS-25 rocket engines, show that difficult to make parts made with the technique are somewhat weaker than forged and milled parts but often avoid the need for welds which are weak points.
SLM or additive manufacturing (sometimes referred to as rapid manufacturing or rapid prototyping) is in its infancy with relatively few users in comparison to conventional methods such as machining, casting or forging metals, although those that are using the technology have become highly proficient. Like any process or method SLM must be suited to the task at hand. Certain markets such as aerospace or medical orthopedics are actively evaluating the technology as a future manufacturing process, but barriers to acceptance are high and compliance issues result in long periods of certification & qualification. This is currently demonstrated by the lack of fully formed international standards by which to measure the performance of competing systems. The standard in question is ASTM F2792-10 Standard Terminology for Additive Manufacturing Technologies.
- 3D printing
- Desktop manufacturing
- Digital fabricator
- Direct digital manufacturing
- Rapid manufacturing
- Selective laser sintering
- Solid freeform fabrication
- Larry Greenemeier (November 9, 2012). "NASA Plans for 3-D Printing Rocket Engine Parts Could Boost Larger Manufacturing Trend". Scientific American. Retrieved November 13, 2012.
- ASTM F2792-10 Standard Terminology for Additive Manufacturing Technologies
- Abe, F., Costa Santos, E., Kitamura, Y., Osakada, K., Shiomi, M. 2003. Influence of forming conditions on the titanium model in rapid prototyping with the selective laser melting process. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part C: Journal of Mechanical Engineering Science 217 (1), pp. 119–126.
- Gibson, I. Rosen, D.W. and Stucker, B. (2010) Additive Manufacturing Technologies: Rapid Prototypingto Direct Digital Manufacturing. New York, Hiedelberg, Dordrecht, London: Springer.
- Wohlers, T. Wohlers Report 2010: Additive Manufacturing State of the Industry: Annual World Wide Progress Report. Fort Collins: Wohlers Associates.