Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory



Study Discovers a Cause of Defects in 3D Metal Printing

High-speed images of a common laser-based metal 3D printing process coupled with newly updated computer models have revealed the mechanisms behind material redistribution, a phenomenon that leads to defects in printed metal parts.

In a recent study published by Scientific Reports, LLNL researchers combined ultrafast imaging of melt-pool dynamics with high-resolution simulations. They found that particles of liquid metal ejected from the laser’s path during the powder-bed fusion additive manufacturing (PBFAM) process—commonly called “spatter”—is caused by the entrainment of metal particles by an ambient gas flow and not from the laser’s recoil pressure as previously believed.

This video depicts the metal powder bed fusion additive manufacturing process with titanium powder in an air atmosphere. Normally, “spatter” or sparks would result in droplets flying around, but in an air environment, the droplets explode like fireworks.

“People have been assuming that recoil pressure leads to spatter because that’s what the laser welding community has seen,” said LLNL physicist Sonny Ly, the paper’s lead author. “We imaged right at the melt pool and you could see particles ejected right from the pool due to recoil, but a majority of particles are swept away and entrained by the gas flow,” he said. “The entrained particles can go back into the laser beam and are melted, leading to a more dominant form of spatter.”

When spatter particles fly out of the laser’s path and land back on the parts, they can contaminate the powder bed and affect the build quality of a layer, Ly explained. This can lead to roughness, porosity, and lack of fusion in finished metal parts.

The high-speed video images were captured with three kinds of cameras, including a sensor capable of up to 10 million frames per second. LLNL engineer Gabe Guss said the researchers could see not only the wave of pressure created by the laser and the counter-drop of molten metal, but also the gas flow above the powder bed that sucked the particles in, where they were either instantly melted or flew through the laser untouched.

“It turns out only about 15 percent of the ejections of molten particles are caused by splashing in the melt pool, which was the assumed mechanism,” Guss said. “The rest is primarily cold particles passing through the laser beam above the melt pool and some other factors.

“It’s surprising,” he added, “because when one watches commercial printers you see the hot ejections and they look like they come from simply outward gas pressure, not the inward entrainment effect.”

Simulations Complement Experiments

The video images were compared to high-fidelity simulations that previously were validated for other additive manufacturing applications, revealing that the incline of the melt pool influenced the direction of the spatter.

“These cameras can’t show in detail what’s happening below the surface of the melt pool,” explained Saad Khairallah, a LLNL computational engineer/physicist who ran the simulations. “The simulations showed a difference in the morphology of the melt pool beneath the laser spot, which allowed us to interpret the experimental observations. This is an example where simulations complement experiments and become a key component in a science story.”

The researchers said the findings should help answer fundamental questions about the powder-bed fusion printing process and improve the physics of existing flow models. With a better understanding of the conditions, Ly said, researchers could establish a baseline and mitigate against the effects of spatter as well as make more efficient use of materials.

LLNL physicists Ibo Matthews, the project’s principal investigator, and Alexander “Sasha” Rubenchik also contributed to the paper. LLNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program funded the study.