Somerset Community College Successfully 3D Prints Stainless Steel Parts

Using $600 desktop 3D printers, college demonstrates that the parts can be conventionally welded.

Using $600 desktop 3D printers, college demonstrates that the parts can be conventionally welded.

Stainless steel parts produced on a desktop 3D printer, with the back left and right plates having been welded together after printing. Image courtesy of Somerset Community College.

Somerset Community College’s (SCC) additive manufacturing program has successfully 3D printed numerous 316L stainless steel metal parts on multiple low-cost desktop 3D printers. Several of these parts were then TIG welded together with successful outcomes. This project is one of the first applications where fully metal parts that were 3D printed on a sub-$600 desktop printer have been successfully welded together using conventional welding techniques. 

SCC’s process is based on Bound Metal Additive Manufacturing (BMAM), predicted by researchers to be one of the fastest growing methods of additive production over the next several years. The SCC AM program faculty and staff started with several low-cost FDM 3D printers, typically less than $450 each. SCC then customized and upgraded them for metal filament extrusion and better build plate adhesion resulting in a total price tag of less than $600 per printer.

The metal infused filaments used were provided by Virtual Foundry and BASF. After accounting for shrinkage and other production issues in the design phase, the parts were 3D printed. SCC worked with sintering experts such as DSH Technologies to debind and sinter the 3D printed parts.

The final step was to hand the parts over to SCC’s Welding department and let them work their magic. SCC’s senior Welding Professor, Karl Watson, used Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW), also known as TIG welding. Several fillet and groove welds were applied to the original six pieces and the welding went well.

“The welds flowed very smoothly and we had very good penetration control,” says Watson. “Because of the nature of 3D printing and research we have seen around the concept of welding such parts, I expected to see more porosity in the weld, but that wasn’t the case with these specimens at all. I am looking forward to doing some bend tests to determine the potential malleability as well as welding other samples using SMAW, GMAW and FCAW.”   

Preliminary testing of the parts has also shown hardness values slightly less than stock 316L, but microscopic inspection after finishing work has not shown any inconsistencies thus far. Watson also noted that the heat dissipation during the welding process of the 3D printed stainless was higher than conventional stock stainless.

From this success, SCC’s goal now is to bring this low-cost metal 3D printing technology to students, teachers and the workforce throughout Kentucky. SCC will be providing training workshops across the state in the assembly and setup of low-cost metal 3D printers for select educators in Kentucky high schools and community colleges.

This work is funded by the Kentucky National Science Foundation (NSF) EPSCoR (or Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) grant, titled Kentucky Advanced Partnership for Enhanced Robotics and Structures. As part of the project, SCC in partnership with Autodesk will also be providing training on advanced design in additive manufacturing using Autodesk’s Fusion 360’s Generative Design suite.         

Eric Wooldridge, director of SCC’s Additive Manufacturing program, is excited about what this technology will mean for Kentucky. “We are so very grateful for all of the funding and support we have received from the NSF, USDA Rural Business Development, Southeastern Kentucky Economic Development (SKED), the Office of Career and Technical Education and Student Transition at the Kentucky Department of Education, and the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, as well as the support from local businesses that fully understand the disruptive power of additive,” says Wooldridge. “Being able to bring truly low cost metal 3D printing and advanced product design directly to schools and colleges across Kentucky is a chance of a lifetime opportunity for us, and we are very excited to get started.”  

Over the next few months SCC will be dialing in the equipment and their training process for the low-cost metal procedures, as well as collecting data on product performance. Wooldridge notes that “there is a lot for us to learn about practical welding of 3D printed metal parts, especially parts that have been produced on a desktop 3D printer. Factors of shrinkage, potential zones of weakness, and the best welding practices are still to be determined.” 

SCC will be working with partners across Kentucky, including the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky, to integrate skills in low cost BMAM into the workforce. SCC will also be working with Tennessee Technological University (TTU) to scale their work across state lines through the support of the Mobile Additive Manufacturing Platform for 21st Century STEM Workforce Enhancement grant from the NSF Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. 

When equipment tests and other preparations are complete, SCC will be selecting training sites across Kentucky for participating instructors to begin the process of transforming Kentucky’s workforce. The goal is for the skills and experience in the additive manufacturing of both metals and polymers to be the norm. Once that training has begun and low-cost metal printing labs are established in educational institutions, SCC will search out other sources of funding to set up the same training opportunities for Kentucky small businesses and entrepreneurs to spur on their own innovations.      

“When you look at all the big investments in additive manufacturing by the aerospace and automotive industries, the announcements from the Department of Defense, and the number of products already on the market that are produced using 3D printing technology,” says Wooldridge, “practical skills in this technology are what any advanced workforce needs. Having a state-wide workforce that is capable of 3D printing metal parts at a fraction of the typical cost; that’s just an innovation revolution waiting to happen.”    

For more information on SCC’s Additive Manufacturing program, check out their YouTube channel, The Additive Guru, dedicated to 3D printing.  

To find out more about SCC's additive manufacturing/3D printing program, contact Eric Wooldridge at [email protected].

Somerset Community College is a comprehensive two-year institution of higher education. SCC has campuses in Somerset and London, and centers in Clinton, McCreary, Casey, and Russell counties. 

Sources: Press materials received from the company and additional information gleaned from the company’s website.

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