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Key Take Aways on Aluminum and Additive Manufacturing

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From the new SmarTech report, Markets for Aluminum Alloys in Additive Manufacturing: 2018 to 2028


· Corporate interest in aluminum powder for additive manufacturing is at an all-time high.

· Aluminum alloys such as Aluminum Silicon (AlSiMg) are used almost exclusively for prototyping and tooling. However, aluminum is expected to be among the key materials in the shift toward larger batch production of mass goods.

· The widespread use of design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) practices is expected to play a major role in the growing adoption of aluminum alloys.

· The high thermal conductivity of aluminum and its alloys makes them notoriously difficult to cast and weld. For laser melting, things get even worse. Aluminum powders are inherently light and have a poor flowability during recoating. They are also highly reflective and have a high thermal conductivity when compared to other materials.

· Aluminum alloys are expected to become relevant in particular for production of parts in the civil aviation industry (general and commercial aviation).

· Demand for metal additive manufacturing systems in the broader automotive industry is increasing thanks primarily to acceptance of printed metal tooling for indirect manufacturing of traditional automotive components, as well as research and development projects for printed aluminum alloys.

· The entire business of aluminum alloys for AM applications is expected to generate close to $300 million in yearly revenues by the end of the forecast period.

· Overall requirements for additive metal powders, regardless of metal type or specific AM process used, include purity, flowability, porosity, and batch consistency.

· Laser-based PBF systems are more widely utilized globally today for Aluminum Alloys and are supported by at least 11 manufacturers worldwide, although possibly more at a regional level.

· Although MIM has worked very well for many decades for a wide range of metals and alloys, the process has always proved to be unsuitable for aluminum. However, researchers at the Technical University Vienna (TU Wien) have recently succeeded in developing a Powder Injection Molding process for aluminum which can be used to manufacture complex-shaped, weight saving components in a material-efficient manner.

· For reactive materials such as aluminum, atomization and packaging has to be performed in a protective atmosphere. In all known processes for the production of aluminum powder, inert gas is used to preserve the spherical shape of the particles. Atomization in air leads to an immediate partial oxidation of the liquid material and prevents the liquid metal from transforming into spherical shape making the powder unsuitable for additive manufacturing processes.

Aluminum has proven historically challenging to additively manufacture—leading the development of materials to head in two different directions. One is the AM qualification of aluminum alloys developed for die-cast applications, the other is the development of new aluminum-based high-performance alloys that can leverage the advantages of AM processes in terms of geometry.

· The most significant potential opportunity for the future resides in Scalmalloy-like alloys, which can be used for cost-effective production of high-strength, weight optimized, end-use, functional parts in aerospace and automotive. SmarTech Publishing expects that over the course of the next decade specialty aluminum alloys will overtake die-cast alloys for powder bed fusion AM processes.

· Competition in the market specifically for aluminum AM powder is intensifying although most major specialized AM powder manufacturers do not yet provide it. SmarTech Publishing expects that within the next two years several major AM powder providers and hardware suppliers will begin offering or will be readying to offer aluminum alloy powders for AM.