When you hear the term digital transformation in the context of the federal government most often it refers to the integration of next generation technologies like multicloud, high performance computing, artificial intelligence, and 5G networks. But one of the most fertile areas for innovation is innovation in the types of materials that can be used to build new armor and new equipment for today’s warfighter. The advantage that lightweight yet extremely strong materials made from aluminum and advanced polymers are significant for warfighters fighting battles in inhospitable theaters. GovDesignHub’s Ryan Schradin had the opportunity to talk to industry-leader Elementum 3D’s president, Jacob Nuechterlein, about winning the recent U.S. Air Force Advanced Manufacturing Olympics and what this means both for his company and for US defense forces.
Often discovery begets more discovery, creativity begets more creativity, and innovation begets more innovation. This is the premise of networking and cooperative business incubators. A great example would be the recent U.S. Air Force Advanced Manufacturing Olympics (AMO), which served as a key motivator for Advanced Manufacturing innovation and has the potential to yield great benefits for agencies across the public sector.
The AMO, held last fall, brought together agencies and companies from across the advanced manufacturing (AM) spectrum to illustrate the great advancements that have been made in 3D printing, additive manufacturing, material development, and digital design technologies. It also served to give military leaders and decision-makers insight into what is possible, and what may become possible, with these technologies in the future.
As part of the AMO, the Air Force held technical challenges in which a number of AM solution providers competed. One of the challenges was the Materials Hurdle Challenge. According to the AFRSO which hosted the event, the goal of this technical challenge was to, “identify and demonstrate new developments in aluminum, polymer, and hybrid technologies to push the envelope.”
The winner of the Materials Hurdle Challenge was Elementum 3D, which specializes in creating advanced materials, including metals, composites, and ceramics, for use in 3D printing projects.
The GovDesignHub recently sat down with Elementum 3D’s president, Jacob Nuechterlein, to discuss their win at the AMO, the possibilities that additive manufacturing and advanced materials bring to the military, and how best our agencies can take advantage of cutting-edge AM technologies.
Here is what Jacob had to say:
GovDesignHub (GDH): Can you tell our readers what Elementum 3D does and how it got its start?
Jacob Nuechterlein: I started Elementum 3D in 2014 to expand the materials library for additive manufacturing. There was such a limited material set, particularly in the metals.
I was looking to expand our capabilities by producing materials and metals that could not only be printed, but that could perform as well or better than the wrought equivalent. Because that’s really where the industry was at that time – fighting against the cast properties. And we wanted to fight against the best properties.
GDH: Recently, Elementum 3D won first place in a technical challenge at the Advanced Manufacturing Olympics (AMO). What was the challenge? And, why was your team able to perform so well?
Jacob Nuechterlein: The challenge was to print a high-strength aluminum. We had to demonstrate the capability to print different components and shapes, while delivering consistency – so that there were good properties across many different samples, its surface finish, those sorts of things. That’s what we do all the time – develop materials for additive manufacturing. And aluminum is our bread and butter.
Our strength and success come from having a diverse team. We have some great metallurgists and material scientists. We have excellent people on the operations end who can execute, make sure that we’re able to print these high-tech materials, and do things that no one has ever done before. And we’re able to put that all together through the management team, which makes sure that it’s running smoothly and gets done on time.
GDH: The stated goal of the AMO was to bring together the advanced manufacturing community to find innovative ways that technology can aid the U.S. Air Force. How do you feel the AMO accomplished this? What advantages or possibilities did this bring to the forefront for AM in the public sector?
Jacob Nuechterlein: It was mostly highlighting the capabilities of the innovative and exciting companies that exist within the Advanced Manufacturing space. For our challenge, it was about highlighting the existence of these materials, like the 7000 series aluminums, that can compete and beat out the properties of the wrought equivalent.
There’s still a lot of education that needs to be done. We need to demonstrate that it’s possible to produce materials that perform as well or better than what you can do with CNC machining. And to demonstrate the advantages of additive manufacturing, which enables the fabrication of advanced designs and different capabilities that just aren’t possible with traditional manufacturing.
I think one of the big things that’s holding the additive manufacturing industry back is confidence in the products, and confidence in the ability to make components. This particular event was about addressing that lack of confidence in the process and in the capabilities.
We demonstrated that we really do have capabilities that are beyond what the Air Force was imagining. That’s an important part of moving the entire industry forward – seeing more applications, seeing and finding confidence in people to try additive, to look at additive, to think about where additive fits and where it doesn’t.
GDH: In regard to 3D printing, metal alloys, and other AM technologies, what needs to happen to see the advantages of AM brought to bear across the military and other governmental agencies? Is there anything that limits this? And are there good things to build upon, especially in light of the recent AMO?
Jacob Nuechterlein: The government needs to establish a universal set of standards for qualified materials. Right now, we’re having to do part-by-part validation and part-by-part certification for each individual part we print.
If we had a set of standards for additive manufacturing that everyone agreed upon, the barrier to entry would be lowered significantly. An established set of standards would streamline testing and validation, which is why we’re so focused on getting them identified and implemented.
GDH: Elementum 3D works in metals, composites, and ceramics. What is on the horizon in additive manufacturing and 3D printing with regard to material development? What are your hopes for these materials and technologies?
Jacob Nuechterlein: The materials that we’re offering today are effectively wrought equivalents. Materials such as our 6061 RAM, and 7050 RAM are wrought equivalents that behave like the alloys that you find in other manufacturing processes. That’s by design, to provide confidence and comfort by using a material that we know.
However, the really exciting part about additive manufacturing is the things you can do with additive manufactured materials that you can’t do in other processing methods, which means we can have additive-specific materials that go way above and beyond what was possible otherwise.
For example, we specialize in metal matrix composites. Materials such as our A1000-RAM10 and A6061-RAM10 are products that have a high volume of ceramic in them, giving them properties that exist between metals and ceramics.
With these materials, we can achieve very high hardness, good wear-resistance in an aluminum that’s lightweight and ductile. We can start to create materials and work with materials that are very hard to do anything with otherwise, and that’s what inspired me to start the company in the first place – it is very difficult to process or produce these metal matrix composites through any other method. But by printing 30 microns layers, one at a time, you can get excellent distributions, you can get near-net shapes. There’s not a lot of finish work to be done afterward. It’s just an excellent process to get a consistent material property out of the material like a ceramic-reinforced metal.
GDH: How can the public sector better partner with industry to meet their ever-expanding need for better supply chains and more empowered personnel and sustained missions?
Jacob Nuechterlein: The first part is knowledge and information. What was “state of the art” three or four years ago is completely different than what is “state of the art” today for additive manufacturing. And there’s a huge inflection point right now for the different additive techniques and manufacturing styles.
For the military to embrace these new technologies, they need to be educated and learn more about what’s new and innovative in the space. In fact, a big portion of my job is helping teach people about where to use additive, where not to use additive, and what the different types of additive manufacturing are. There’s a lot of different styles of printing, whether that’s binder jet versus laser powder bed. They do very different things and they perform very different – albeit necessary – jobs in the manufacturing field.
This article was originally published on GovDesignHub on February 5, 2021.