Excerpt from mercurynews.com
Behind the glass of an SUV-sized printer, a laser fuses fine powders of steel and tungsten, layering the material and building items from the ground up. The finished products, displayed neatly on a nearby table, range from the intricate — a safety device for nuclear weapons — to the simple — a basic counterweight. The creations are born from Selective Laser Melting, a state-of-the-art 3-D printing process being perfected by researchers at Lawrence Livermore Lab.
Using a million-dollar metal 3-D printer and the right computer-modeled recipe, a trained operator can create virtually any object out of metal in a matter of hours or days. “I honestly think this will impact everybody’s lives. … Complexity is free. It doesn’t cost any more to build a complex part than it does a simple part,” said Livermore lab scientist Wayne King.
First developed in the 1970s, three-dimensional printing — creating objects by layering plastics, metals and other materials with the aid of computer models — has leaped into the mainstream, boosted by the emergence of home-based 3-D printers and billions of investment dollars from companies such as Google and General Electric.
The collective advances could have profound implications, scientists say, for the armed forces, the automotive and aerospace industries — and for American manufacturing in the next decade.
A single operator could upload a job, press print and create, well, almost anything. To save time and money on costly experiments, King and his team are coupling laser melting with the lab’s supercomputers to find optimal recipes for making parts. Eventually, he said, each 3-D printed part will carry a digital fingerprint — or birth record — that will follow it for its entire life, making it simple to check the part’s integrity and history down to individual grains of matter. But what’s really revolutionary for manufacturing, according to lab machine operator Paul Alexander, is that engineers no longer have to design under traditional constraints. “(3-D printing) provides the answer to some very difficult challenges,” he said. “You can make parts with functionality as your first criteria, and tailor them to the tools available.”