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NASA's JPL Develops Multi-Metal 3D Printing Process

timothy posted about 2 months ago | from the just-use-a-photoshop-gradient dept.


yyzmcleod (1534129) writes The technology to 3D print a single part from multiple materials has been around for years, but only for polymer-based additive manufacturing processes. For metals, jobs are typically confined to a single powdered base metal or alloy per object. However, researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory say they have developed a 3D printing technique that allows for print jobs to transition from one metal to another in a single object. From the article: In JPL’s technique, the build material’s composition is gradually transitioned as the print progresses. For example, the powdered build material might contain 97 percent titanium alloy and 3 percent stainless steel at the beginning of the transition. Then, in 1 percent increments between layers, the gradient progresses to 97 percent stainless steel and 3 percent Ti alloy by some defined point in the overall 3D printing process.

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Then mix it with 10% Quicksilver (2)

MindPrison (864299) | about 2 months ago | (#47574691)

Yep, I'd like to see that. Never-mind why, I just want to see that.

Re:Then mix it with 10% Quicksilver (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47574815)

I'm sorry, but NASA is long past the Mercury project now.

Re:Then mix it with 10% Quicksilver (1)

mpoulton (689851) | about 2 months ago | (#47575023)

Mercury alloys don't tend to be very good for much of anything, except where the process of amalgamation is important - and that's not here.

Re:Then mix it with 10% Quicksilver (1)

ArcadeMan (2766669) | about 2 months ago | (#47576191)

MindPrison's project is at T minus one thousand.

Gradients (3, Interesting)

i kan reed (749298) | about 2 months ago | (#47574805)

I'm not an industrial/mechanical/aerospace engineer.

Are there any existing manufacturing processes that allow the creation of a metal gradient of this sort? Is this unique to 3d printed constructions?

I've got enough of an understanding of statics to grasp how it might be useful to transition from sturdier heavier components to lighter more fragile materials, so I could see how if this was new, it'd be revolutionary.

Re:Gradients (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47574845)

Vapor Deposition [] could do it. Although it would be impractical for large pieces.

Re:Gradients (4, Interesting)

HappyPsycho (1724746) | about 2 months ago | (#47574991)

While I doubt it is unique to 3d printing (I could be wrong though) but the simple pour into mould methods won't work without taking into account the relative densities of the metals involved (depending on how long they take to cool they may separate out anyway).

The real benefit I can see here would be from the ability to control how fast you move from one material to another which seems to be one of the major benefits (having the gentle transition of the alloy removes the transition point and the matching weak point).

What may be unique is the control that 3d printing offers, I'm sure someone can create [] without using 3d printing but I'm also sure its not a quick / easy process.

Kindof yes, but super expensive and difficult (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47575009)

The Russian aerospace industry has been doing this for quite some time (the Soviets were incredibly advanced with their metallurgy, if not much else) but the process involved basically heat grafting progressively biased alloys onto each other, which proved almost impossible to automate and required a lot of manual intervention by incredibly skilled technicians along the manufacturing chain - it proved so difficult and expensive (even if it WAS revolutionary for the time), they only used the method on an incredibly small number of projects such as the MiG-25 jet interceptor and the early versions of the Soyuz rocket.

This is one of those (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47574821)

actual interesting things that "3D printing" can achieve, even though it's an industrial process that requires huge machinery and a factory floor and staff, ie not the common nerd dream of the lone geek in his garage with his 300$ hot glue gun and open source CAD.

This will hardly revolutionize anything except for a few niche applications were you can save 100 grams from some arcane strut in a rocket.

But I'll bet the Space Nutters already have their pants around their ankles flying a Full Space Erection because *now* we'll colonize the universe!

It was the lack of mixed metal bolts that was holding us back, dontchaknow.

Re:This is one of those (1)

Russ1642 (1087959) | about 2 months ago | (#47574863)

And then in ten years it finds its way into your car. Into golf clubs and tennis rackets. Into medical implants.

Re:This is one of those (1)

Anon-Admin (443764) | about 2 months ago | (#47574905)

Pfft, in 10 year it very well could be a $300 printer in your garage. Technology moves fast and there is no telling where it will be in 10 years.

Re:This is one of those (1)

ArcadeMan (2766669) | about 2 months ago | (#47576211)

I'm betting 1000 satoshi that in 10 years we'll be in 2024.

Re:This is one of those (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47575983)

But we already have cars and golf clubs etc. They won't suddenly get better by orders of magnitude. It's not the same as going from the Model T to a car in the 1960s.

Re:This is one of those (3, Insightful)

Joe Gillian (3683399) | about 2 months ago | (#47574891)

It's not about being able to magically colonize space, it's about saving money and improving shuttle fuel economy. I forget what the cost per pound to send something into space is, but I remember it being in the range of thousands of dollars per pound in fuel. If you could use this to reduce the weight of a vessel by even a few kilograms, you would be saving tens of thousands per launch on fuel costs. Alternatively, that's a few kilograms that can be devoted to experiments rather than the weight of the shuttle.

The same thing goes for any other type of fuel-burning vehicle.

Re:This is one of those (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47576065)

So a few niche uses then? My god, saving a few thousand per billion dollar launch? Has anyone warned the Andromedans? We're coming!

Re:This is one of those (1)

Applehu Akbar (2968043) | about 2 months ago | (#47574909)

Actually, the ability to print in multiple metals on the same job has innumerable industrial applications, because it removes the major current limitation of 3D print tech. Medical device nutters, electronics assembly nutters and airframe nutters are going to really love this.

Re:This is one of those (1)

HiThere (15173) | about 2 months ago | (#47577037)

I'm not sure. I suspect that this is going to largely be "an invention looking for an application" for a decade...just like the laser was.

The problem is we've never been able to create alloys as a tightly controlled gradient of multiple metals before. Now if it could print a sharp disjunction between the materials, and especially if it could also print an insulating layer, then the applications would be obvious, but this is a very different thing. Different metals, e.g., conduct both heat and electricity differently. What will the effects be is one can print a gradient that oscillates between two different metals? How well can alloy crystal properties be predicted?

I think this is something that has a LOT of potential, but what those potetials actually are may well take quite awhile to figure out.

Re:This is one of those (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47575143)

This will hardly revolutionize anything except for a few niche applications were you can save 100 grams from some arcane strut in a rocket.

The example in the article wasn't so much about weight savings, rather having a single part with two different expansion properties - in this case, mounting a mirror on a space telescope, where you have one end attached to steel and the other to glass. This lets them match the thermal expanion on each end, making the mount both simple (single part) and effective.

Incredibally useful (5, Insightful)

gurps_npc (621217) | about 2 months ago | (#47574933)

And not just for "gradient" bonding. You can use non-gradient, sharp boundaries to create parts that touch but are NOT bonded. Want to create a machine with two interlocking gears? Make one gear out of steel and the other out of titanium. They won't bond even though they are touching each other.

Right now, you basically can't build a machine that can build itself, because almost all machines need multiple metals AND needs parts that touch but are not bonded. A simple motor for example needs metals that are magnetic and non-magnetic and also needs something that can spin.

With this technology, a machine may actually be able to create a copy of itself that does not need any other parts added, nor will it need human assembly.

Re:Incredibally useful (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47575199)

A quick correction is needed on a "machine copying itself" is due. I've been using 3D RP processes for over 15 years and there are specific limitations no one is talking about.

When, as the article noted, the build layer thickness of the melted metal powder is .005 inches, you can NOT make finely finished and accurately sized mating parts for any sort of normal moderate tolerance machinery.

The part shown in the article needed to be cleaned up with precision turning, milling, grinding and lapping polishing methods to make that nice shiny and accurately sized part. The cost of this part will still be very high, but it achieves a specific simplification of being able to accomplish its task in a lighter, smaller, one piece package than with earlier methods.

Re:Incredibally useful (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47576257)

Bah, you and your reality. We were having a perfectly fine mutual space-masturbation session here, OK?

Our Star Trek fantasies *will* come true because computers got better and imagination has no limits, all right???

No go away, Luddite troll.

/PS: This is actually how Space Nutters think.

Re:Incredibally useful (2)

WillAdams (45638) | about 2 months ago | (#47575413)

Classic old saw is that the only tool in a workshop which can duplicate itself is a lathe --- hence the Gingery books starting w/ making a lathe using investment castings: []

(Book 1 is how to set up a charcoal foundry)

Had a copy of Book 2 a long while ago and gave it away --- always rather regretted that.

Re:Incredibally useful (1)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about 2 months ago | (#47576329)

With this technology, a machine may actually be able to create a copy of itself that does not need any other parts added, nor will it need human assembly.

Well, you didn't expect Skynet to rely on humans to fabricate all those Terminators, did you?

3D printing has too many problems (2, Insightful)

Prune (557140) | about 2 months ago | (#47575261)

Many of those problems will not be resolved. The most important one, and one that will always be worse in the case of 3D printing compared to traditional mass manufacturing methods, is the extreme energy inefficiency. For example, when printing with plastic, a 3D printer uses 50-100 times more electricity than an injection molding machine making the same part, not to mention that it wastes a lot of material left in the print bed that's not recyclable as feed for the printer because its properties have been corrupted. Home and office use should also be discouraged because of the emittance of ultrafine particles. Want your place of living/work's air even more polluted? Source for these: []

There are other problems as well, including cultural ones. From the article:
3D printing might someday encourage a new kind of pollution: rapid garbage generation. Engineers being trained to respect their raw materials are taught "Think twice, cut once." When people get ahold of easy production tools, however, it’s easy to not heed that wise old adage.
Like we don't have enough of a throw-away culture as it is.
3D printing should only be used to manufacture objects which cannot be made by other methods.

Re:3D printing has too many problems (3, Insightful)

fullmetal55 (698310) | about 2 months ago | (#47576381)

That's actually my biggest complaint about 3d printing...

It's never going to replace injection molding for manufacturing. That will always be cheaper. where this comes in handy, is prototyping. which is what they were intended for from the beginning. you need to make a part, a one-off... it's great for that. if you need to make more than one... then other options are available. but to be honest making a SINGLE one-off part through injection molding? that'll take you more than 50-100 times more electricity of the 3d printer, because you'll need to make the mold, and then you get to throw it away because its not needed anymore.

but for prototyping and one-offs... thats where 3d printing's niche is. prove it can work with a 3d printer, then mass produce it.

now since this article is about METAL 3d printing, that's an entirely different beast altogether... injection molding (Casting) of metal components of course will be cheaper, but can you cast multiple alloys together like this? that's kinda cool... even you gotta admit that.

Re:3D printing has too many problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47576477)

Um, I think you don't realize that space is full of unlimited resources. Once that 3D printer goes past Low Earth Orbit, *then* we'll have a post-industrial utopia for all!

And you're a Luddite if you don't see that.

Re:3D printing has too many problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47579315)

The most important one, and one that will always be worse in the case of 3D printing compared to traditional mass manufacturing methods, is the extreme energy inefficiency.

United Technology (Otis lifts, etc) gave a talk (which I can't find presently) where the CEO was explaining how additive manufacturing allowed them to significantly REDUCE energy consumption for titanium parts.

The basis is this: when you machine something with subtractive manufacturing (CNC, etc) you start with a bounding box around the part, which has to be cast or forged, and you expend significant energy to remove all the mass that is not the part. If the part is only 10% of it's bounding box, then 90% of the casting, and the energy that produced the casting, is scrap. All the tailings from the subtractive process then have to be remelted and usually refined during recycling. In addition the cutting tools wear out and are very expensive and the machine itself uses a lot of energy because of the hardness of material.

In contrast with additive manufacturing, all the unmelted powder can be reused without reprocessing for the next machine run, and there are processes in development that can additively form titanium alloy parts from Titanate build powder, negating the energy required to refine the titanate, further reducing energy costs over subtractive processes.

The two processes can also be combined, with a bulk additive near-net-geometry process that is finished to final dimensions by CNC.

So while your statements might hold for plastic additive processes, they certainly aren't true for hard metal processes: Titanium, Tungsten, high Nickel, high Chromium, Molybdenum Alloys.

A final point, injection molds take extreme energy to produce; cutting an injection mold from nickel Steel will use far more energy and cost more than printing 100 parts in stereo lithography, so for short run parts additive manufacturing makes a lot of sense even if it is less efficient when the unit count is scaled to infinity.


Re:3D printing has too many problems (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month ago | (#47585353)

Additive manufacturing of metals may actually improve injection casting (which you can't do with most metals in the first place), of plastics. Say you want to blow mold a plastic that's deep. You'd need to start with a huge chunk of metal and mill it all out. With AM you can print out the mold, do a little bit of finish machining, and bam you have a mold. Might make shorter run stuff more economical.

I also don't think the idea of this process becoming a home/office utility is realistic either. The machine that performed this work cost over a million dollars. Even with the technology becoming cheaper, you're still using an enclosed CNC machine with a powerful laser. Either one of those parts are still expensive. How many homes have laser cutters or waterjets? Those have similar health concerns.

BTW, this can all be done with a shroud gas to prevent oxidation and allow recycling of material.

Finally, that comment about engineers being trained to respect raw material is garbage. Material is cheap, labor is expensive.

metaljet printer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47577715)

A separate metal for each nozzle.

Corrosion (1) (1140205) | about 2 months ago | (#47578727)

The layout of the metals will need to plan for internal corrosion. Whilst, both titanium and most stainless steels have a corrosion proof film (it is why these materials are so useful, particularly when used alone), the use of two different grades WILL set up an electrochemical potential between the parts and this will provide an opening for corrosion to occur.

Bad example (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47578997)

While the stainless steel transition to Invar may be a good idea, the stainless steel to titanium transition mentioned (hypothetically one hopes) is a bad idea. The fusing of the stainless steel to titanium will generate brittle iron-titanium (Fe2Ti) intermetallic compound.

NASA and 3d printing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month and a half ago | (#47648005)

I publish information about 3d printing and I've just written an article on the NASA website ( [] ), I find the process interesting even similar to previously developed by Irepa Laser technique.
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