Metal Additive Manufacturing
manufacturingtechnologyinsights

Metal Additive Manufacturing

By Jingfu Liu Chief Scientist, Additive Manufacturing, Sentient Science

Jingfu Liu Chief Scientist, Additive Manufacturing, Sentient Science

How can software simulation accelerate metal 3D printing application?

Metal additive manufacturing (AM), commonly known as metal 3D printing, has gained increasing attention in recent years, but the adoption of this technology in the end application is moving slowly. One reason is that printing metals typically have more technical challenges than printing non-metal materials like polymer. Another reason is associated with the high-end application of metal AM parts in critical areas such as aerospace and medical device. Those industries have very stringent qualification process which takes a much longer time. In the endeavour of accelerating metal AM application, software simulation plays a key role to push forward this technology, from initial part design to final part fabrication and certification.

“Software simulation is the most promising way to accelerate metal 3D printing application.”

So, in addition to some basic software required to execute a print job, what other software can help to make qualified metal AM parts?

The first type of software is related to design optimization. Limitation in traditional manufacturing processes do no longer apply to this new technology. The traditional component can now be re-designed to achieve better functional performance, yet there is no standard design rule for additive manufacturing. A robust design optimization software can help engineers effectively re-design traditional parts that benefit from AM technology. For example, topology optimization software that can largely reduce component weight but remain part strength. Similarly, software with generative design capability also creates lightweight structure that is beyond traditional design scope. Other software, such as lattice structure generation or part consolidation, also focus on weight reduction and function improvement. With the help of that software, a traditional component can be re-designed with less weight, more complexity, and better performance.

Second type of software is for AM process modelling. Once a design is finalized, it will go to build preparation. Basic build preparation software can suggest build orientation and support structure, yet not guarantee a satisfied metal part due to potential high thermal stress-related printing failures (e.g. distortion, cracking). Thus, extensive trial-and-error iterations are often needed for process optimization. This becomes one of the major roadblocks that slows down metal AM part development. ACAE software capable of simulating entire AM build process is in great demand. It allows engineers to analyze the thermo-mechanical behaviour, identify high-risk areas, optimize the build strategy in a virtual environment, and eventually achieve first-time-right print. This type of software will significantly drive down the cost of the AM part development cycle. Due to the complex nature of AM process, innovative simulation software beyond traditional CAE software is needed to simulate the build process with accuracy and efficiency.

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Third type of simulation software is related to post-build process prediction. After a part is successfully built out of an AM machine chamber, it typically needs to go through post-build processes such as heat treatment and hot iso-static pressing to improve material properties. Similar to the design for AM process, there is no standard rule for post-processing of AM parts. Each metal AM part has its unique microstructure (e.g. porosity, crystallography, precipitates) that differentiates itself from traditionally manufactured part. As such, the post-build procedure for a traditional component might not be applicable to AM component. Thus, analysis software capable of simulating the as-print AM microstructure evolution in post-build process is essential to optimize post-build process and maximize component functional performance.

Another type of simulation software is to predict the performance of AM components, such as structural integrity and fatigue performance. To date, part certification process heavily relies on mechanical testing at coupon level. Understanding of microstructure-property relationship from part to part is still lacking. The variation in collected coupon data often cause uncertainties. Thus, a software capable of accurately predicting part-level mechanical property, with consideration of unique AM microstructure, is highly desired. Such software will drive considerable cost reduction and accelerate part certification process.

Opportunities

Simulation plays a critical role across many scopes of metal AM processes, and the four types of software mentioned above only represent a portion of the AM software family. Software development is rapidly evolving in this area, and there has been consistently new software release. Software with faster simulation speed is more favorable for industrial application, as engineers are always looking for a quick turnaround from software analysis. In addition, most existing software only addresses a single problem mentioned above, implying customers will need several software suites to solve their comprehensive problems. This will impose an extra financial burden, steepen the learning curves, and may also cause compatibility issues across different software suites. Thus, an integrated software suite that spans across design optimization, process modelling, and property prediction will likely gain more favours.

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