Some metalcasters are developing a new application for additive manufacturing technologies in their operations, and a research consortium that includes aluminum diecasters as well as the North American Die Casting Assn. is working to make it commercially viable. The work is centered at Case Western Reserve University, where a professor of materials science and engineering, David Schwam, is leading the program to develop 3D printing methods to extend the life of machine dies.

Diecasting dies are the particular focus of this effort, though in an interview Schwam noted that the research has implications for forging and extrusion dies, too. That’s because a primary objective is to understand how to recognize and manage thermal stresses when manufacturing or repairing the dies. From that, specific industrial applications would follow.

Professor Schwam emphasized that the project does not aim to produce an entire die, but to work with the rough die forms and use tool steel grades in 3D printing processes to restore the surface details that are worn or damaged during production. Thus, one of the current limitations of additive manufacturing – the dimensions of the ‘build box’ — is less significant to the commercial potential of the concept.

The project sponsors estimate that this approach could save diecasters as much as $500 million in annual repair costs. A similar amount might be saved by domestic forging operations.

The research team will integrate 3D printing, cladding, cold plasma spraying, and various welding technologies to optimize methods and materials for different types of tools. Diecasters and other manufacturers will design fixtures and methods for fitting sections of large parts within 3D printers.

Once the damaged tools are restored, their performance will be compared with new tools, and all the findings will be formalized into “specifications for rejuvenating and repurposing specific materials and components, and submitted for consideration to national and international standardization bodies such as the American Society for Testing and Materials,” according to a release.

This research project is one of seven to earn funding from the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. NAMII was established in August 2012 under the U.S. National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a joint initiative of the U.S. Depts. of Energy, Defense, and Commerce, along with NASA and the National Science Foundation, to coordinate industrial and academic resources and capabilities for advanced manufacturing goals.