3D Printing: A Great Opportunity for Science and for Singapore

Dec 1, 2015

Guglielmo Vastola

Scientist

Institute of High Performance Computing

The A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) was established in August 1998 to provide leadership in high performance computing as a strategic resource for scientific inquiry and industry development. It seeks to power discoveries through advanced methodologies, techniques and new tools in modeling, simulation and visualization. Its core research areas are in the realm of complex-coupled systems, mechanics and fluid dynamics, large-scale systems, digital modeling, adaptive and collaborative computing, data mining and analysis, computational electronics and electromagnetics, computational materials science and chemistry.

An illustration of how 3D printing actually works: starting from powder (in light blue), the effect of the laser beam is to locally melt it (in red). As the beam travels following the arrows, new powder is melt and, at the same time, the liquid solidifies (in dark blue), gradually creating the object.

An illustration of how 3D printing actually works: starting from powder (in light blue), the effect of the laser beam is to locally melt it (in red). As the beam travels following the arrows, new powder is melt and, at the same time, the liquid solidifies (in dark blue), gradually creating the object.

Reprinted from Additive Manufacturing vol. 7, G. Vastola et al. Modeling and control of remelting in high-energy beam additive manufacturing, 57–63 (2015), Copyright (2015), with permission from Elsevier.

Remember the last time you went shopping and were looking in vain for shoes a half-size larger? Soon, 3D printing could help you find that perfect fit.

Also known as Additive Manufacturing, 3D printing is a new technology that creates an object by literally ‘adding’ material one piece at a time, until the final shape and size of the object — in this case, your comfortable shoes — is reached.

3D printing works in a layer-by-layer fashion: metal or plastic powder is spread across one very thin layer (a few micrometers thick); then, a laser beam scans a slice of the object to be built. As the powder locally melts and binds together, a new layer of the object is built, melting the powder. A new layer of powder is then deposited on top of the structure, and the laser scan is repeated for a new slice — et voilá, the object gradually takes shape layer by layer.

Other than custom-size clothing, the possibilities for 3D printing are enormous: if you replace the plastic powder with metal powder, for example, the rich variety of complex objects typical in today's advanced engineering applications can be built. Here, there are many key advantages in using 3D printing rather than conventional manufacturing. For example, hollow shapes, that can't be built with conventional manufacturing, can be made in one single step of casting.

At IHPC, we became interested in Additive Manufacturing as there are a lot of exciting problems that are still waiting to be solved. For example, understanding how the many process parameters — the power of the laser and its scanning speed for example — influence the final quality of the part. For this reason, we are developing new capabilities that allow us to simulate the additive manufacturing process, and predict the final properties of the part, such as its strength and durability. This way, we also aim to support local companies, because if you don't need to print many parts just to test them, and instead focus only on printing your best part, well, that is a big saving in terms of both money and time!

The economic impact of additive manufacturing could be quite significant. For example, as mentioned, people are developing ways to allow you to ‘on-demand’ print your next dress, or pair of shoes tailored just right for you. The next gold jewel for your loved one? You can now print it in the shape you want; the more intricate the design, the better. At the same time, exotic applications are also being studied. For example, people are trying to 3D print organs (e.g. livers and kidneys) for the benefit of millions of patients waiting for organ transplants, while other people are trying to 3D print chocolates, simply to delight everybody.

3D printing could also be one of our best allies up in space. What happens if your old tools break or you need a new custom-designed tool? On Earth, this is annoying – but in space, this is a big problem. In August 2014, a 3D printer was dispatched to the International Space Station. By sending up the printer, rather than the tool, astronauts can now on-demand print a screwdriver when they need it. Indeed, this could be a huge help for the future missions to Mars and beyond, where if you need something that you didn't carry with you, there certainly isn’t the option of going back to pick it up!

This blog post is an example of the on-going work on 3D printing by Guglielmo Vastola in collaboration with Gang Zhang, Qing Xiang Pei, and Yong Wei Zhang at the Department of Engineering Mechanics at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing.

Dr Guglielmo Vastola is a Scientist at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing. He completed his PhD in Materials Science at the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy, and his B.S. and M.Sci. in Physics at the University of Pavia, Italy. His current research is focused on computational modeling and simulations of 3D printing for metals and polymers.