Researchers in Austria have developed a steel powder that allows even complex components to be fabricated using 3D printing, providing more design freedom without compromising the stability of the finished products.

A team led by Mateusz Skalon, a professor in the TU Graz Institute of Materials Science, Joining and Forming, developed the powder—called NewGEN SLM powder–which eliminates the need for support structures that are typically found in metal 3D-printed parts, making them more expensive to design.

Researchers have developed a new steel powder for metal 3D printing that they said improves the quality of and reduces the cost of products over those created using conventional powders. (Image source: IMAT-TU Graz)

The metal-working industry is using additive manufacturing at a rate that’s increasing by 30 percent each year due to shorter production times and lower costs, among other benefits, researchers said.

The new powder developed by Skalon can now help promote this growth even more by simplifying the process even further, he told Design News.

The typical metal 3D-printing process is selective laser melting (SLM), which builds the component up in layers. However, in this type of printing, the scope for design is limited in terms of construction and design because the more complex the component, the more extensive support structures needed, Skalon told Design News.

“Currently, when heavily leaned surface is printed, then it has to be supported by support structures otherwise it will become really rough and porous–basically useless,” he told Design News. “The elaborated powder helps to stabilize the melt-track–created by a laser beam–so when the leaned surface is printed, it requires supporting at lower angles.”

More Stability, Less Support

To develop the powder, Skalon and his team modified the surfaces of the particles’ surfaces of conventional 316L stainless-steel powder so that the metal—when liquefied by a laser beam during the printing process–behaves in more stable way, he said. This will help ensure that components with low angles of inclination don’t collapse during printing.

Figuring out the right formula to create a powder with the right characteristics did take the team considerable time, Skalon acknowledged.

“Firstly we had to understand the reason why the leaned surfaces tend to get rough along with the decreasing angle–it took us over a year,” he told Design News. We performed multiple experiments and when we finally understood the problem, we drew up a plan of how to suppress the negative effects.”

The team then conducted a few more months of research to find a way to successfully modify the powder so it supports s “melt-track stability,” Skalon added.

The team estimates that cost savings of $128 per each kilo of printed metal can be achieved using the NewGEN SLM powder. The surplus powder also can be recycled at the end of production, which also will help save material costs, Skalon said.

Researchers hope to bring the powder and process they developed out of the lab quickly through what’s called a Spin-Off Fellowship of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG). Through the program, Skalon and his researchers will test the powder on the most typically used laser-melting systems in the next 16 months.

After the testing period is over, researchers want to establish a production company in Austria to modify and sell NewGEN SLM, with business and industrial partners already showing interest, Skalon added.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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