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3D Printing the Innovations of the Future

From batteries and space-bound gyroscopes to strong, mechanically enhanced metal alloys, a rising number of the valuable innovations being developed at Masdar Institute are leveraging the rapidly evolving technology of 3D printing.

3D printing is a sustainable ‘additive manufacturing process’ that negates the need for highly specialized factory set-ups to manufacture certain types of objects, like aircraft parts, medical prosthetics, and customized accessories. It uses computer models from a digital file to directly produce physical objects by depositing a material, such as plastic, metal or ceramic, onto a surface layer-by-layer and using various approaches for patterning and fusing the materials. Innovations in the field have even allowed for 3D printing to produce complex structures and devices that would otherwise be difficult and/or costly to produce with conventional manufacturing techniques, like embedded electronics, sensors and medical devices.

“3D printing is an enabling technology that has the potential to radically transform a number of UAE’s key industries, including energy, water and aerospace,” said Dr. Steve Griffiths, Vice President for Research and Associate Provost, Masdar Institute. “That is why Masdar Institute is capitalizing on 3D printing to develop the next-generation technologies needed to support the UAE’s efforts to become one of the most advanced and innovative nations.”

In recognition of the increasingly important role 3D printing will play in boosting sustainability and economic growth in the UAE’s key sectors – the technology that according to McKinsey could have direct global economic impact of up to US$550 billion per year by 2025 – Masdar Institute is exploring how 3D printing technologies can be leveraged to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies.

NEW INNOVATIONS

3D printing’s freedom and flexibility in product development, coupled with its reduced manufacturing time and costs, is enabling Masdar Institute researchers to design and test new ideas quickly and affordably, which is key to developing optimized products.

One such innovation that is taking advantage of 3D printing’s flexibility is a lithium-ion battery being produced by Dr. Daniel Choi, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. Using 3D printing, Dr. Choi has printed a micro-container onto which a graphene current collector and thin-film electrode can be transferred in order to improve a lithium-ion battery’s energy performance.

Graphene used as a current collector with electrodes improves the transport of electrons, which in turn can greatly enhance the battery’s performance and provides better chemical stability, higher electrical conductivity and higher energy capacity.

Traditional fabrication methods of graphene-enhanced electrodes are complex and expensive. Alternatively, 3D printing offers an easy and low-cost synthesis approach that could enable mass production of such electrodes.

“3D printing allows us to fabricate a variety of 3D architectures for supporting novel cathode materials and solid electrolytes. Such templates are to be filled with carbon nanomaterial composite-based ink materials, like the one I developed for the cathode in this research,” Dr. Choi explained.

A second project at Masdar Institute that leverages the advanced capabilities of 3D printing to fabricate complex shapes is a student-led research project to develop a space-bound gyroscope. Gyroscopes are sensors that identify an object’s orientation, making them particularly valuable for navigation systems used in airplanes, space craft and satellites. However, their complex geometries and miniscule size make them difficult to fabricate.

Responding to the need for a simpler, more efficient manufacturing process, MSc in Materials Science and Engineering student Mariam Mansouri is developing a way to 3D-print a type of gyroscope known as the vibrating ring gyroscope (VRG).

Using Masdar Institute’s 3D printing facilities, the tiny gyroscope – measuring less than one millimeter wide and thick – is printed with a polymer ink. Once printed, it will be coated with copper nanowires using a selective surface treatment to create the electrodes and electrical conductivity needed so the gyroscope can convert mechanical signals (vibrations) into electrical signals.

When complete, the 3D-printed gyroscope will be tested in a miniature satellite, called a CubeSat, to help it navigate after being launched into space.

METAL ALLOYS

In addition to using 3D printers to produce a range of clean-energy innovations, Masdar Institute researchers are also leveraging 3D printers to develop new materials, like advanced metals, with exceptional mechanical properties.

Dr. Mamoun Medraj, Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is leading the project that aims to discover how various 3D printing techniques can be used to produce stronger, mechanically superior metal alloys – which are metal mixtures that are stronger, harder, and more useful than pure metals. In particular, he is working to improve the mechanical properties of Inconel 718 – a nickel-based super alloy known for its excellent mechanical properties and superior corrosion resistance at high temperatures.

Inconel 718 has valuable uses in a range of applications – from natural gas pipelines to steam turbines – but the nickel alloy is difficult to machine and shape via conventional manufacturing processes, which is why metallurgists are turning to new manufacturing techniques, including 3D printing. 3D printing allows metallurgists to easily shape the alloy into any desired form, such as an engine blade, while avoiding the hardening problem that typically makes shaping Inconel 718 challenging. 3D printing also has the added benefit of being much more energy-efficient and significantly less wasteful than conventional manufacturing processes, making it a much more sustainable manufacturing method.

However, the drawback of 3D printing Inconel 718 is that the printed alloy, compared to its conventionally manufactured counterpart, exhibits less desirable mechanical behaviors. Dr. Medraj believes that the answer to improving the printed alloy’s mechanical properties lies in the finishing techniques, which are the post-printing treatments that take place after the alloy is printed.

Dr. Medraj and his team – which includes Masdar Institute MSc student Ignacio Rubio and Post-Doctoral Researcher Dr. Ahmad Mostafa, along with Dr. Vladimir Brailovski and Dr. Mohammad Jahazi, Professors of Mechanical Engineering at the École de Technologie Supérieure (ETS) – are studying how different 3D printing techniques coupled with various post-processing thermal treatments affect the mechanical behavior of Inconel 718.

The team uses two different laser sintering techniques – an additive manufacturing process that uses a laser to sinter powdered material – to manufacture the alloy, and then applies various post-manufacturing mechanical and thermal treatments. They then study the alloy’s microstructure.

“By understanding the resulting microstructure of Inconel 718 after the printing and treatment, we expect to discover the most suitable thermo-mechanical post-printing treatments. Such treatments will allow 3D printed Inconel 718 to achieve mechanical properties close to those obtained by conventional manufacturing methods,” Dr. Medraj explained. Their work also aims to reduce microstructural defects, surface roughness and oxidation of the alloy during printing.

Being able to 3D print mechanically-optimized alloys will help bolster the use of 3D printed alloys in numerous industrial, commercial and medical applications, which will in turn support greater sustainability in manufacturing and the many industries that use alloys.

IMPROVING 3D PRINTING

To further capitalize on the transformative potential of 3D printing – a technology that has been around for over 30 years –Masdar Institute is also leading projects to advance the technology itself.

Masdar Institute alumna Noora Abdulrahman, a Class of 2016 MSc in Engineering Systems and Management graduate, dedicated her thesis research to developing a system to improve the quality of 3D printed objects.

Using data analytics, she developed a tool that ensures a 3D printer utilizes optimal printing configurations, which results in the highest-quality 3D printed object.

“My research focused on developing a data mining platform for 3D manufacturing technologies to help ensure that the optimal techniques are being used when printing occurs,” Abdulrahman explained. The research examined the relationship that exists between 3D printing parameters (including temperature, layering speed, and layering height) and the quality of the 3D printed product.

To create a tool that ensures optimal 3D printing configurations are used, Abdulrahman 3D-printed 27 similar components using the Institute’s MakerBot 3D printer, which utilizes a fused deposition modeling technique, and scanned the printed objects. She then analyzed the scanned results with a software program to determine which of the configurations resulted in the highest quality print job.

Using these results, she created two data mining algorithms to help the 3D printer decide whether certain parameter combinations should or should not be employed before printing an object’s layer.

Abdulrahman’s innovative approach to improving 3D printing has the potential to significantly advance 3D printing, and thus ultimately manufacturing in the UAE.

CONCLUSION

Masdar Institute researchers are not only capitalizing on 3D printing’s versatility for the design and development of novel, low-cost structures with multiple applications, they are also improving the overall efficiency and quality of 3D printing processes; efforts that could place the UAE at the forefront of advanced manufacturing. These efforts to lead innovation in 3D printing will also play an important role in the UAE’s transition to greater sustainability and prosperity. By advancing the application and capabilities of 3D printing technologies, Masdar Institute will ensure the country is able to leverage the best tools and methods available to achieve its sustainable knowledge economy goals.

Erica Solomon
News and Features Writer
21 July 2016

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