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3D Printed Ceramics Reduce Cost, Leadtimes for Complex Aerospace Parts

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media
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Dan Sokol, CEO, at one of the 3D printing machines PERFECT-3D uses to build complex ceramic parts, including cores, molds, filters and prototypes for investment casting.

PERFECT-3D might not appear to be an acronym, but it is, standing for Process Enabled Repeatability For Extended Life & Consistent Tools. PERFECT-3D’s process for 3D printing of ceramics for complex components resulted from the collaboration of its parent company, Renaissance Services Inc. (Fairborn, OH), with the US Department of Defense, a major investment casting company, a large chemical company, and an aircraft engine manufacturer.

“While 3D printing of ceramics is still in its relative infancy, it has the potential to reduce tooling costs for complex precision castings by more than 70%, and it can provide an 80% reduction in the lead time for cores and molds compared to conventional processes,” said Dan Z. Sokol, Renaissance Services CEO.

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Bryan Deptowicz, project engineer, shows a remote telemetry unit that captures environmental conditions in the furnace room and transmits data to the Discus system via the IIOT network.

“Our focus is 3D-printing of ceramic tooling in support of investment casting for ceramic cores, molds, and filters. With the latest advances in 3D printing, PERFECT-3D has developed patent-pending techniques to directly 3D-print ceramic molds and filters for the casting of high-temperature, nickel-based alloys as well as steel and aluminum. This capability allows the foundry to bypass many of the front-end steps involved in the manufacture of castings, especially the lead time and cost to create the tooling for cores and wax patterns,” Sokol explained.

Ceramic tools can be 3D-printed in a week or less for investment castings, compared to conventional casting processes that can take from six to 12 months and cost $500,000, according to Sokol.

PERFECT-3D applies special ceramic compositions of silica, zircon, and alumina, combined with photopolymer resins, which have been optimized for the latest 3D printing technology to create small and large ceramic components, ranging in size from 1 to 20″ (25.4–508 mm) with intricate features as small as 0.020″ (0.51 mm). Typical applications are cores for cooling passages in airfoils to increase fuel efficiency; engineered filters to control flow rates and prevent inclusions as molten metal is poured into molds; and 3D-printed molds for legacy replacement parts that must be reverse-engineered because engineering drawings are out of date or simply no longer exist.

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The PERFECT-3D team includes (left to right) Randy Harris, director of engineering; Dan Sokol, CEO; Bryan Deptowicz, project engineer; and Scott Morris, project engineer.

“We are able to produce cores without hard tooling for dies with the CAD model effectively serving as the tooling, and achieve high repeatability for complex geometries such as cooling passages,” said Sokol. “We are able to develop rapid prototypes and multiple iterations of complex parts in a fraction of the time and cost of traditional processes.”

PERFECT-3D moved into its new climate-controlled production facility in the spring of 2017, five minutes away from its parent company in Fairborn, OH. The facility has the capabilities required to process 3D-printed custom ceramic tools and parts. PERFECT-3D works with BASF (Wyandotte, MI) to apply BASF’s proprietary photopolymer resins and ceramic slurries for the metals being cast. The PERFECT-3D facility has multiple L5000 ProMaker 3D printing machines, with 15 × 11 × 8″ (381 × 279 × 203-mm) build envelopes, from Prodways (Minneapolis); two high-temperature sintering furnaces; a test lab for evaluating both green and fired ceramic components; and complete 3D quality inspection.

Since 3D printing of ceramics is still an emerging technology, PERFECT-3D is focused on identifying and controlling process variation. It uses software from Discus Software Co. (Columbus, OH) that provides an engineering system that starts with the customer’s technical data package (TDP) and provides a continuous thread that manages requirements and results throughout the part lifecycle. Randy Harris, director of engineering, said, “We use Siemens NX CAD software to design tools and Materialise software for slicing and laying-out the 3D printing platform. To really understand and control our process, we use Discus to create a Smart TDP that captures customer requirements and creates digital work instructions for repeatable processing by operators. In addition, we have remote telemetry units throughout the facility that track environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and air particulates. Using the Discus software system and our IIOT network, we are able to use our tablets and smartphones to monitor all of the processing variables for each serialized piece.”

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