Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) is an additive manufacturing technique that uses a Yb (Ytterbium) fibre laser fired into a bed of powdered metal, aiming the laser automatically at points in space defined by a 3D model, melting or rather, welding the material together to create a solid structure. DMLS was developed by the EOS firm of Munich, Germany.
The DMLS process involves use of a 3D CAD model whereby a .stl file is created and sent to the machine’s software. A technician works with this 3D model to properly orient the geometry for part building and adds supports structure as appropriate. Once this "build file" has been completed, it is "sliced" into the layer thickness the machine will build in and downloaded to the DMLS machine allowing the build to begin. The DMLS machine uses a high-powered 200 watt Yb-fiber optic laser. Inside the build chamber area, there is a material dispensing platform and a build platform along with a recoater blade used to move new powder over the build platform. The technology fuses metal powder into a solid part by melting it locally using the focused laser beam. Parts are built up additively layer by layer, typically using layers 20 micrometers thick. This process allows for highly complex geometries to be created directly from the 3D CAD data, fully automatically, in a relatively short time and without any tooling. DMLS is a net-shape process, producing parts with high accuracy and detail resolution, good surface quality and excellent mechanical properties.
DMLS has many benefits over traditional manufacturing techniques. The ability to quickly produce a unique part is the most obvious because no special tooling is required and parts can be built in a matter of hours. Additionally, DMLS allows for more rigorous testing of prototypes. Since DMLS can use most alloys, prototypes can now be functional hardware made out of the same material as production components.
DMLS is also one of the few additive manufacturing technologies being used in production. Since the components are built layer by layer, it is possible to design internal features and passages that could not be cast or otherwise machined. Complex geometries and assemblies with multiple components can be simplified to fewer parts with a more cost effective assembly. DMLS does not require special tooling like castings, so it is convenient for short production runs.
This technology is used to manufacture direct parts for a variety of industries including aerospace, dental, medical and other industries that have small to medium size, highly complex parts and the tooling industry to make direct tooling inserts. With a typical build envelope (e.g. for EOS's EOSINT M280) of 250 x 250 x 325 mm, and the ability to ‘grow’ multiple parts at one time, DMLS is a very cost and time effective technology. The technology is used both for rapid prototyping, as it decreases development time for new products, and production manufacturing as a cost saving method to simplify assemblies and complex geometries.
The Northwestern Polytechnical University of China is using a similar system to build structural titanium parts for aircraft. An EADS study shows that use of the process would reduce materials and waste in aerospace applications.
On September 5, 2013 Elon Musk tweeted an image of SpaceX's regeneratively-cooled SuperDraco rocket engine chamber emerging from an EOS 3D metal printer, noting that it was composed of the Inconel superalloy. In a surprise move, SpaceX announced in May 2014 that the flight-qualified version of the SuperDraco engine is fully printed, and is the first fully printed rocket engine. Using Inconel, an alloy of nickel and iron, additively-manufactured by direct metal laser sintering, the engine operates at a chamber pressure of 6,900 kilopascals (1,000 psi) at a very high temperature. The engines are contained in a printed protective nacelle, also DMLS-printed, to prevent fault propagation in the event of an engine failure. The engine completed a full qualification test in May 2014, and is slated to make its first orbital spaceflight in 2015 or 2016.
The ability to 3D print the complex parts was key to achieving the low-mass objective of the engine. According to Elon Musk, "It’s a very complex engine, and it was very difficult to form all the cooling channels, the injector head, and the throttling mechanism. Being able to print very high strength advanced alloys ... was crucial to being able to create the SuperDraco engine as it is." The 3D printing process for the SuperDraco engine dramatically reduces lead-time compared to the traditional cast parts, and "has superior strength, ductility, and fracture resistance, with a lower variability in materials properties."
The aspects of size, feature details and surface finish, as well as print through error in the Z axis may be factors that should be considered prior to the use of the technology. However, by planning the build in the machine where most features are built in the x and y axis as the material is laid down, the feature tolerances can be managed well. Surfaces usually have to be polished to achieve mirror or extremely smooth finishes.
For production tooling, material density of a finished part or insert should be addressed prior to use. For example, in injection molding inserts, any surface imperfections will cause imperfections in the plastic part, and the inserts will have to mate with the base of the mold with temperature and surfaces to prevent problems.
Independent of the material system used, the DMLS process leaves a grainy surface finish due to "powder particle size, layer-wise building sequence and [the spreading of the metal powder prior to sintering by the powder distribution mechanism]."
Metallic support structure removal and post processing of the part generated may be a time consuming process and require the use of machining, EDM and/or grinding machines having the same level of accuracy provided by the RP machine.
Laser polishing by means of shallow surface melting of DMLS-produced parts is able to reduce surface roughness by use of a fast-moving laser beam providing "just enough heat energy to cause melting of the surface peaks. The molten mass then flows into the surface valleys by surface tension, gravity and laser pressure, thus diminishing the roughness."
When using rapid prototyping machines, .stl files, which do not include anything but raw mesh data in binary (generated from Solid Works, CATIA, or other major CAD programs) need further conversion to .cli & .sli files (the format required for non stereolithography machines). Software converts .stl file to .sli files, as with the rest of the process, there can be costs associated with this step.