Building the future with robotic additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM) is changing how engineers and part designers think and robots are enabling the technology by making AM machines and processing faster and more accurate than they would be on their own.

01/16/2018


Additive manufacturing (AM) is not only transforming the way we make things; it's changing how engineers and part designers think. They have to forget limitations imposed by conventional manufacturing methods and open their eyes to new design possibilities. These possibilities are expected to catapult the AM industry to $17 billion by 2020. There are several types of AM processes, including selective laser sintering (SLS), stereolithography (SLA), and fused deposition modeling (FDM).

All are digital manufacturing methods where computer-aided design (CAD) data is used to fabricate a 3-D object by adding layer upon layer of material, whether it's liquid, powder or sheet, or some other type of material. Even human tissue can be used. AM is used to create myriad structures, from dental appliances, to advanced aircraft components, an entire bridge, and even works of art.

Robots help make it possible. Robots are not only enabling additive manufacturing, they're tending 3-D printing machines (which are also robotic), automating AM post-processing, and allowing architects to envision new ways to build. 

Layer by layer

At Midwest Engineered Systems Inc. (MWES) in Waukesha, Wisc., they are using laser AM to create complicated metal parts that would otherwise be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manufacture. A six-axis articulated robot drives the process, combining hot wire deposition and a laser to build metal parts layer by layer on an existing substrate. Exotic metals are deposited with precision and speed to build prototypes and small batches of high-value complex parts.

MWES brought its 25-plus years of expertise in complex systems integration to bear in developing this process, which was unveiled at the International Manufacturing Technology Show 2016. In a show floor demo, a propeller took shape during the layer-by-layer process. 

MWES named their system ADDere, which was derived from the Latin word meaning to add. The process is similar to wire and laser additive manufacturing (WLAM), where a metal wire is fed into a melt pool generated by the laser beam on the substrate. The wire and substrate consequently form a metallurgical bond. The difference is that MWES uses a hot wire process.

"We heat the wire to the point that it's molten at the tip," said Scott Woida, president and founder of MWES. "Since the wire is already molten, we then use the right amount of laser power to melt the substrate underneath to form a strong bond. You're able to use less laser power when you're not trying to melt the wire as well as the substrate. The hot wire allows you to get higher deposition and put less heat into the part."

Additive manufacturing process uses a robot equipped with a laser head and hot wire deposition to build a metal part layer by layer. Courtesy: Midwest Engineered Systems Inc./RIA The process always starts with a substrate. In the show floor demo with the propeller, it was a cylinder.

"We can either use the substrate as part of the final part, or we can cut the substrate away and just have the part made of weld bead," Woida said. "But we have to start with something. It can be as simple as an eighth of an inch thick piece of steel."

Wire and laser, plus robot

The primary elements of the system include a high-precision industrial robot, the laser system, an integrated MIG wire and laser head, and the MWES controls system. The process includes active head control and dynamic deposition measuring to closely monitor the process before, during, and after the build.

To begin, CAD data is imported into CAD/CAM software, where it is prepared for the additive process. The part is then "sliced" into layers and the robot path is generated offline. Process information can be added automatically or manipulated manually. The generated path and process information is translated through a post processor and automatically transferred to the robot controller. Then the robot executes the program and builds the part layer by layer.

Applications include: 

  • Prototypes
  • Small batch production runs
  • Replacement parts
  • Rebuilt surfaces
  • Cladding.

The ADDere system uses a six-axis long-reach robot, which provides for path flexibility and a large working envelope. It's merged with a multi-axis part positioner. Woida said 2 x 8 x 40 m working ranges are possible. Achievable tolerances are +/- 0.5 to +/- 1.5 mm, depending on deposition rate. Post-processing usually requires some machining. The additive process creates a hardened form of the material, so soft metal also requires annealing. 

Proprietary additive manufacturing system comprises a six-axis articulated robot, integrated laser and hot wire deposition, and sophisticated controls system in a laser safety enclosure. Courtesy: Midwest Engineered Systems Inc./RIA Freeform fabrication leads to less waste

System advantages include rapid development of new metal parts, quick design changes without adding tooling costs, and low initial cost to production. Woida said one of the main advantages is the ability to take multiple part subassemblies and combine them as one unit.

As an example, GE Aviation took this concept to a whole new level with the AM process for its Advanced Turboprop engine. GE designers were able to reduce 855 separate parts down to just 12. More than a third of the engine is 3-D printed.

With MWES' ADDere system, solid freeform fabrication allows the use of different metals on different areas of the part to create engineered characteristics specific to an application. This is particularly cost-effective when you want to clad a less expensive metal with a more exotic metal for particular properties like high wear resistance. The process also can be used for repairs by first machining a part to a stable structure and then building up the part to its original state.

"We're getting properties similar to casting, closer to forged," Woida said. "Compared to subtractive methods, you waste less base material because you're building to near net shape."

Wire AM also results in less waste than powder-based AM processes. Woida said they achieve 99% utilization. "When we're running the wire for manufacturing our component, all that wire ends up getting used to make that part," he said. "There is very little waste of the wire (as opposed to powdered metal AM processes where the excess powder falls by the wayside and needs to be recycled). The only thing that happens is that you're machining the outside of that component to get from your near net shape to your net shape. Typically you only machine your mating surfaces. You don't have to machine the whole part."

For the propeller in the demo cell, Woida said you may only need to machine about 5% of that part after the AM process. He said it's also 10 times the speed of powder-based AM processes.

Propeller blades built with a robotic laser additive manufacturing process shown near net shape before finishing. Courtesy: Midwest Engineered Systems Inc./RIA  "We can put down 32 lbs. per hour of stainless steel right now, and that's with a 14 kW laser. Soon we'll have a 20 kW laser. When the material has a high dollar value and it's really hard to machine, this process makes sense," he said.

Not suited for this process are small components, parts that have low manufacturing costs, and parts that require little machining from billet.

"When the part is done, it has a casting-like quality to it," Woida said. "You can either machine the part or we can use a laser to smooth out the outside for a better surface finish. But a lot of our customers are less interested in surface finish as much as they are functionality." 

High-value parts, exotic metals

The ADDere system is available as a turnkey product for purchase or as a manufacturing service.

"The parts we are working on to date are basically validation for customers that we can make the components to their specifications," Woida said. "Mass production hasn't started, but we are providing sample sets to customers to verify the capability of the system. They are evaluating them for quality and then they will be buying them in larger quantities from us, or buying the system."

Robotic laser additive manufacturing testbed builds an 1,800-pound bulkhead one layer at a time. Courtesy: Midwest Engineered Systems Inc./RIA One of those parts undergoing testing in MWES' R&D system is an 1,800-lb. bulkhead for an aircraft carrier. Rather than having to waste valuable space with spare parts inventory aboard the ship, imagine being able to use AM to create or repair parts, on demand, while at sea.

The ADDere AM system has application for aerospace, drive train, suspension, naval, military, oil and gas, construction, mining, and agricultural equipment. Materials best suited for these applications are typically exotic metals, such as stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, cobalt, Inconel, and tungsten alloys. Woida said their experience in laser welding is paying off.

"We typically get involved in highly engineered systems, so we have a lot of exposure to the latest technologies, whether it's the latest laser technology or robotic technology," he said. "On a daily basis, we design systems that don't exist in a catalog, that are highly engineered. You need a lot of diverse experience. You need mechanical engineers because these systems are fairly complex. You need software people to make this easy and viable to sell on the open market. You need robotic engineers to then integrate all that. You need weld engineers that can verify and make sure the metallurgical properties are what they're supposed to be. You need a whole lot of people to bring this together." 


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