AM ResearchInspection/NDTUK

University of Bristol develops laser-based sensors for 3D printing

The technology can assess the quality of components in fields such as aerospace and could transform UK industry

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According to the University of Bristol, researchers have derived a formula that can inform the design boundaries for a given component’s geometry and material microstructure using laser-based sensors. A commercially viable sensing technology and associated imaging algorithm to assess the quality of such components currently does not exist. If the additive manufacturing of metallic components could satisfy the safety and quality standards in industries, there could be significant commercial advantages in the manufacturing sector. The study is published in the journal Waves in Random and Complex Media.

The key breakthrough is the use of ultrasonic array sensors, which are essentially the same as those used in medical imaging to, for example, create images of babies in the womb. However, these new laser-based versions would not require the sensor to be in contact with the material.

“There is a potential sensing method using a laser-based ultrasonic array and we are using mathematical modeling to inform the design of this equipment ahead of its in situ deployment,” said the author, Professor Anthony Mulholland, Head of the School of Engineering Maths and Technology, at the University of Bristol.

The team built a mathematical model that incorporated the physics of ultrasonic waves propagating through a layered (3D printed) metallic material, which took into account the variability one gets between each manufactured component.

The mathematical formula is made up of the design parameters associated with the ultrasonic laser and the nature of the particular material. The output is a measure of how much information will be produced by the sensor to enable the mechanical integrity of the component to be assessed. The input parameters can then be varied to maximize this information content.

“We can then work with our industry partners to produce a means of assessing the mechanical integrity of these safety-critical components at the manufacturing stage,” said Professor Mullholland. “This could then lead to radically new designs (by taking full advantage of 3D printing), quicker, and more cost-effective production processes, and significant commercial and economic advantage to UK manufacturing.”

Now the team plans to use the findings to help their experimental collaborators who are designing and building the laser-based ultrasonic arrays. These sensors will then be deployed in situ by robotic arms in a controlled additive manufacturing environment. They will maximize the information content in the data produced by the sensor and create bespoke imaging algorithms to generate tomographic images of the interior of components supplied by their industry partners. Destructive means will then be employed to assess the quality of the tomographic images produced.

“Opening up 3D printing in the manufacture of safety-critical components, such as those found in the aerospace industry, would provide significant commercial advantage to UK industry,” said Professor Mullholland. “The lack of a means of assessing the mechanical integrity of such components is the major blockage in taking this exciting opportunity forward. This study has built a mathematical model that simulates the use of a new laser-based sensor, that could provide the solution to this problem, and this study will accelerate the sensor’s design and deployment.”

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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