3D Metal Printer Adds Capabilities to UAF Machine Shop

Oct 19, 2022 | Education, Manufacturing, News, Science, Telecom & Tech

Man beside 3d printer

Jesse Atencio, a UAF Geophysical Institute machine shop fabricator, shows off the new 3D metal printer.

JR Ancheta | UAF

When scientists need specialized research tools or components, the UAF Geophysical Institute can make them by itself. An onsite machine shop has long fabricated precision parts, and now those parts can be printed in metal.

Fused Deposition

The Geophysical Institute operates the only 3D metal printer in the UA System. It was purchased in mid-2020 but not ready for use until this year.

“To be able to do metal printing greatly expands what we can do,” says machine shop manager Greg Shipman. “One of the big advantages to 3D printing is you can accomplish geometry that would be next to impossible to do with machinery.”

The machine shop has several traditional and high-temperature 3D printers of varying sizes, all of which use thermoplastic filaments.

Compared to plastic printers, creating something with a 3D metal printer involves a few extra processes. The Geophysical Institute’s metal printer uses “fused deposition,” a technology that is less costly than some other methods of 3D metal fabrication.

Fused deposition starts with the filament, which consists of nylon merged with metal, such as copper, stainless steel, tool steel, or Inconel, a steel that can withstand temperatures of up to 2,200°F.

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The printer extrudes layer upon layer of filament as directed by its computer. The item that comes out of the printer is in a “green” state, so goes to a wash station to strip away excess nylon, revealing a precisely measured item.

The final step is the furnace.

“The computer controls the furnace,” Shipman says, “and what it’s doing is fusing those particles together and maintaining that same degree of accuracy.”

A New Phase

test item from 3d printer

A test item fresh out of the 3D metal printer before the finishing process.

JR Ancheta | UAF

Technology continues to transform the institute’s machine shop.

“One side of our shop is for manual machines,” Shipman explains, “and the other side is for computer-controlled machines. We’re in a new phase. What we’d like to do is to just make others aware of the capabilities of this 3D metal printer—and not just this machine but all our machines.”

The $139,000 printer manufactured by Markforged of Massachusetts also serves other UAF units beyond the Geophysical Institute.

“We are pleased to have this new 3D metal printer at the Geophysical Institute and available to serve UAF,” says Jami Warrick, the Geophysical Institute’s operations manager. “Its purchase demonstrates the university’s continued commitment to research in the Arctic.”

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