Tool of tomorrow today

Posted: May 7, 2014 - 5:47pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 10, Issue 2 | 2014

Additive manufacturing technology, like the Y‑12–designed tooling pictured, could save time and money and reduce waste in the site’s production operations.

One of Y‑12’s researchers is on a special mission to modernize manufacturing at the site. Last May he moved to California to learn firsthand about additive manufacturing during a yearlong assignment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Additive manufacturing, or 3‑D printing, is a process that builds solid objects by joining materials in a series of layers. Each layer is printed on top of the previous one.

“Additive manufacturing is industry’s next transformational technology,” he said. The process employs commercial machine tools that read data from a computer-aided design drawing and then deposit plastic or metal powder in layers, alternately fusing each layer with lasers or electron beams, to create the final shape.

The researcher had been investigating the technology for three years when Y‑12 liaison Daryl Boyer introduced him to Livermore’s capabilities. Boyer was familiar with the laboratory’s two new laser-bed machine tools.

“I had observed increasing interest and investment related to additive manufacturing at Lawrence Livermore and Y‑12,” Boyer said. “It seemed like a natural fit for the two sites to share experiences and ideas.”

Within months, a new partnership was formed. “This partnership is a good leveraging of the technology and will help streamline the transition to production operations,” said Y‑12’s Dan Linehan, deputy director of Stockpile Programs. “Y‑12 can determine the right kinds of application for this technology and evaluate the machines before investing in equipment, while Lawrence Livermore can gain insight from Y‑12’s machining expertise.”

Additive manufacturing technology could significantly reduce the time needed to fabricate prototypes and tooling at Y‑12, as well as reduce waste and costs. The layering process can generate a complex tooling piece having almost any shape or geometric feature and create a sound, lightweight lattice structure using less material than a solid piece.

While the researcher is at Livermore, his role is to evaluate additive manufacturing techniques and materials. “He has identified tooling used in production that can be manufactured additively and is exploring other uses for the technology,” said Dennis Miller, director of Manufacturing and Technical Services Initiatives at Y‑12. The tooling pieces tend to have complex designs, welds and features that require multiple machine tools.

For pieces like that, additive manufacturing can be a more efficient or cost-effective method of production than conventional subtractive manufacturing, which creates a final product by drilling, cutting, turning or milling. For simpler designs, however, the traditional approach is still preferred.

“Additive manufacturing is a complementary technology, not a replacement technology,” the researcher said. “It has unique benefits and capabilities, but conventional manufacturing will always be needed in machine shops.”

Y‑12 production is testing and evaluating several different pieces additively manufactured last year to determine whether their strength, density, ductility and other properties are the same as those of cast and wrought counterparts. This year Y‑12 successfully used some of the new tooling in regular production operations.

“Without a doubt, success with the technology thus far has resulted from a collaborative approach across the Nuclear Security Enterprise,” the researcher said. Y‑12, Livermore and other Department of Energy sites have formed an additive manufacturing team to exchange information.

“Focusing different perspectives on the same issues and opportunities will lead to the best solutions,” Boyer said.