Titanium, a material popular in aerospace, oxidizes in contact with air at processing temperatures above or equal to 300 degrees Celsius. As a result, the material properties change. The components become brittle and can crack. If, for example, a laser is used by a robot to manufacture a titanium workpiece additively, a large chamber must be built first around the robot and the component. This chamber is then either flooded with a low-reaction noble gas such as helium or argon or a vacuum must be generated before manufacturing can start. “This kind of process shielding may be suitable for small component sizes, but it causes considerable difficulties for the production of large components in terms of process control and accessibility,” explains Jakob Schneider, who focusses his research on additive manufacturing at Fraunhofer IWS. “In addition, the costs for such a chamber increase proportionally with the size of the component to be protected. These are, for example, the expanses for several cubic meters of helium or argon, which may also have to be pumped in and out due to intermediate processing steps.” The same applies to workpieces made of further materials, so-called “refractory metals”, such as tantalum, niobium or titanium-aluminum compounds.
“COAXshield” protects titanium components
For this reason the IWS has developed “COAXshield”, an alternative protective shield designed to direct the shielding gas only to the areas where it is really needed: directly around the laser beam's processing zone, which melts the metal powder and deposits it layer by layer on the component. The nozzle head can be mounted under standard processing optics. It encloses the powder nozzle and forms a protective gas cone “coaxially” around the process zone. This cone thus only protects the hot processing zone, because just here titanium and ambient air can react with each other.
“This solution saves the user a lot of time and money,” emphasizes Jakob Schneider. “In addition, very large titanium components can also be additively manufactured.” An example: For the X-ray space telescope “ATHENA”, the European Space Agency ESA needs a satellite supporting structure made of titanium with a diameter of several meters. In cooperation with Fraunhofer IWS, ESA is developing a process and the associated system technology for additive manufacturing. The “COAXshield” has been developed in this context .The technology is expected to be ready for the market at the beginning of 2020.