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Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing fabricates parts by building them up layer-by-layer (as opposed to cutting material away or molding it). It shows great promise for applications as diverse as lightweight aerospace structures and custom biomedical implants.

Additive manufacturing is causing fundamental changes in the way parts are produced. Where typical manufacturing operates by cutting away or molding material, in additive manufacturing, digital designs guide the fabrication of complex, three-dimensional products that are built up, layer by layer.

As the field matures, transitioning what is now more of an art into a science will be critical for expanding its use by industry. This transition depends on measurements and ultimately, standards. Through its core missions of measurement science research and standards development, NIST is working with U.S. industry to lead these changes.

The Engineering Laboratory’s Measurement Science for Additive Manufacturing (MSAM) program is exploring barriers to adoption of additive manufacturing, such as surface quality, part accuracy, fabrication speed, material properties and computational requirements. To mitigate these challenges, the program focuses on material characterization, real-time control of additive manufacturing processes, qualification methodologies and system integration.

The Material Measurement Laboratory is investigating additive manufacturing-related issues for both metals and polymers. Projects underway include studying the fracture and fatigue properties of additive manufacturing materials, nano-mechanical properties of surfaces and flaws in these materials, modeling of microstructure evolution, and relationships between precursor material and final product quality.

The Physical Measurement Laboratory is studying emissive properties of materials in solid, powder, and liquid states, as well as improved techniques for real-time temperature measurements to support better understanding and modeling of additive manufacturing processes.


Electron backscatter diffraction for additive manufacturing, 1 of 2
Credit: J. Benzing/NIST
Colorized micrograph shows vertical bands and dots in purple, blue and green.
Credit: J. Benzing/NIST

These images scream “manufacturing,” right? For NIST’s Jake Benzing, they certainly do.

With an electron microscope by his side, the NRC postdoctoral fellow creates scans like these for 3D-printed cubes made from different metal alloys. The cubes come from a process called additive manufacturing, which builds up a 3D shape from thin layers of metal powder, each melted into place by a laser or electron beam. Engineers want to control and understand the additive manufacturing process as much as possible, so that their creations can handle the real-world stresses that they’re supposed to withstand.

Jake develops maps of the 3D-printed cube samples’ microscopic structure. The method (called electron backscatter diffraction) fires an electron beam into the surface of the sample and detects a specific pattern for the individual metallic grains inside.

Each grain’s pattern visually reveals how it will respond to an applied force. In the images that Jake renders, the color of each pixel represents a grain’s orientation and crystalline structure. Combining all the colors together gives a comprehensive look at the properties in different sections of the material.

The details of the manufacturing process — from the energy of the electron beam to the time it takes for each metal layer to melt into the desired shape — all factor into the way the final product performs under pressure. For example, exactly how much stress will cause the parts of a jet engine to expand under the stress of centrifugal force while up in the air?

At such a detailed level, manufacturers can narrow down which 3D-printing process best suits their needs for a particular product. As you can see, the result can be easy on the eyes, too.

Find out more about Jake’s research:

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