Ford Motor Company and ExOne, a provider of 3D industrial 3D printing systems and services, have announced that a team of engineers, material scientists, and manufacturing experts has developed a patent-pending process for rapid and reliable binder jet 3D printing and sintering of aluminum that delivers properties comparable to die casting.
Researchers have been trying to accomplish these tasks for over a decade now, to no avail. As such, both Ford and ExOne are expected to file collaborative and individual patents as a result of their ongoing collaborative project.
Certain aluminum alloys were already able to be 3D printed using lasers, but this new process does the job much faster. It’s expected that the breakthrough will allow Ford to affordably produce complex components designed for additive manufacturing, which enables size and weight reductions, part consolidation, and performance improvements, with increased efficiency.
Binder jet 3D printing is considered to be the fastest method of metal 3D printing for high-volume output. It uses a digital file to quickly inkjet a binder into a bed of powder particles such as metal, sand, or ceramic to create a solid part, one thin layer at a time.
When printing metals, the final bound metal part must be sintered in a furnace to fuse the particles together into a solid object. The heating process reinforces the strength and integrity of the metal, and while the process for sintering stainless steel is well understood, achieving high densities greater than 99 percent is an industry breakthrough for aluminum.
“This is a breakthrough in making 3D printed and sintered parts for the auto industry,” said Harold Sears, Ford’s technical leader for additive manufacturing. “While the 3D-printing process is very different than stamping body panels, we understand the behavior of aluminum better today, as well as its value in light-weighting vehicles. High-speed aluminum 3D printing paves the way for other opportunities that we’re just now starting to take a look at because of the ability to do complex parts with aluminum that previously weren’t possible. It’s really opening doors for other opportunities.”
“Developing a fast, affordable, and easy way to 3D print aluminum with traditional material properties is a critical step toward light-weighting more products and delivering a more sustainable future,” said John Hartner, ExOne CEO. “Our world-class engineers and scientists are focused on solving the toughest problems with 3D printing technology, and this achievement is a real win for all of us.”