The next generation 3D printer, that can change manufacturing, will become a symbolic product of the new JEOL.
Rather behind the World, Japan is promoting a national project for developing a 3D printer where JEOL Ltd. has an important role: the next generation electron beam metal 3D printer. The 3D printer is to melt metal powders by using an electron beam to create the desired object. Use of the electron beam is not common in the world. Development of a prototype has already been completed and its launch in 2019’s fiscal year is targeted.
Additive manufacturing of metal powders by the electron beam
The generally-used 3D printer is to harden resin by light and add resin layers to form an object. The JEOL 3D printer is a system to melt metal powders using the electron beam and lay down successive metal layers to form an object. 3D printers using a laser beam are common, but the 3D printer with electron beam is an innovative product where only one competitor exists in the world.
Takashi Sato, Assistant Manager, actively plays the role as a sub leader of the technical group of the project team for the next generation electron beam metal 3D printer.
“The use of a metal 3D printer has begun in the world, to manufacture engine components for passenger aircraft and others. Since a 3D printer enables monolithic molding, the number of parts can be reduced to one-tenth to even one-hundredth, thus allowing great cost reduction when the inspection process of each part is also considered. Industrial application of 3D printers was not early in Japan. It was likely that Japan would be forever behind the trend of global manufacturing if nothing was done. Thus, development of an industrial 3D printer for the next generation has started as a national project since 2014. JEOL is participating in this development team using an electron beam method.
This national project is officially called “Technology Research Association for Future Additive Manufacturing” or “TRAFAM” as abbreviated.
Compared with the laser beam, the electron beam realizes high throughput, since it enables high thermal efficiency and high speed in melting the metal material. In addition, the electron beam can melt material which is difficult with the laser beam. At present, JEOL uses a powder of titanium alloy which has a high melting point, as well as high corrosion resistance and strength.
Development of the electron beam source, the heart of 3D printer
Since Sato moved to the current department in 2015, he has been in charge of the development of electron beam source which emits electron beams, the heart of the electron beam metal 3D printer. As high power is required, the existing in-house electron beam source was not possible to use.
“It was necessary to newly develop a high power electron beam source. But the problem was the gas (vapor of metal) from the metal powder, when the power is increased. The gas damages the electron beam source.” says Sato. An electron beam source is put in a high vacuum container called a vacuum chamber in order to avoid electrons from being scattered by the gas molecules. The gas generated in the chamber is a menace. When controlling the influence of gas was made through improvements of the mechanism, he felt happy. Sato says.
“In addition, since the irradiation section of the electron beam reaches a high temperature, even if the scan of the electron beam stops for a few seconds, the beam goes through the stage made of iron, and destroys the chamber. Until a safety mechanism is made, monitoring of the printer was needed all the time. I even stayed in the laboratory until mid-night by obtaining overtime permission.”
Still, developing the electron beam source was alright as JEOL had accumulated know-how. The problem was development of the process to melt the metal powders. No such technology was available with JEOL.
“It was really tough work to develop the melting process. However, we somehow managed it by adding professionals of material to the development team.”
Technologies to support manufacturing of Japan
After such a hardship was overcome, about one year after the development started, the additive manufacturing (stacking molding) became possible. Sato felt relieved with the result as a high hurdle had been crossed anyhow.
Several shapes were prepared as a trial such as a tube and a bar and various experiments were conducted. For another two to three years from then, the product was improved to be a commercial product level.
“Since the development team has many young employees and each has his/her own opinion, it was difficult to wrap them up. However, these opinions are necessary for making a good product. I am really happy to transform these ideas into a product.”
When asked if he had felt the pressure during development, Sato says,
“Since a great amount of cost was spent for the development, I did felt the responsibility, of course. However, when I thought about that we were making the symbolic product of a new JEOL and we are developing the technology to support Japan in manufacturing, I felt excited every day. It was a joy to see and manufacture the product day by day.”
In order to manufacture a commercial product, it is necessary to build up fine improvements. Always trying to catch minor changes, steady works have been repeated in order to make the electron beams stabilized in the past.
“The generation source of electron beam can be easily oxidized, and the performance gets deteriorated. If a slightest difference was felt, it was necessary to check it with a SEM (scanning electron microscope). It was tough to repeat the steps. For development works, we should not spare ourselves.”
JEOL famous for 3D printer
Electron beam metal 3D printer will be launched within 2019’s fiscal year. At the moment, there is one competitor who manufactures similar metal 3D printer in the world, and so we cannot be relieved even if we succeeded in development.
“They have a slight superiority. It is necessary for us to continue improving the printer after the release, while asking customers to use it. The first 3D printer will be used by a member company of TRAFAM, and we will improve the model with the feedback given by the user.”
The next generation 3D printer will be initially used in the aerospace industry, then will penetrate the automobile industry. With that, not only great cost reduction but also improvement of performance and durability will be achieved. It will become a backbone technology for Japan.
Sato says, “The next one to three years is important.”
“The most important is to promptly improve the product according to the users’ voices after the release and make the product worth using for the users. Ultimately, we would like to be known as “JEOL for 3D printers.” says Sato happily. The manufacturing technology by way of 3D printer is called “additive manufacturing” in the world. Additive means additional. The electron beam metal 3D printer will be the starting point for additive manufacturing technology for the next generation.