The novel 3D-printing process shown at microscale.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory The novel 3D-printing process shown at microscale.

As 3D printing’s popularity and accessibility continue to grow, so do its capabilities. It is now not only possible to print in a variety of materials, but also to print more sophisticated parts using even more advanced materials.

Researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in Tennessee, recently developed a metal printing capability that offers unprecedented precision. The team deposited and fused successive layers of powdered Inconel 718, a superalloy comprising nickel and chromium, using an electron beam–melting device. During the printing process, the team was able to vary the temperature gradient—and therefore the material solidification process—at the millimeter scale. The resulting printed components reveal a highly customized microstructure.

“We can now control local material properties, which will change the future of how we engineer metallic components,” said Ryan Dehoff, the research team's leader and an ORNL staff scientist, in a press release. “This new manufacturing method takes us from reactive design to proactive design. It will help us make parts that are stronger, lighter, and function better for more energy-efficient transportation and energy production applications such as cars and wind turbines.”

Not many building components are made of Inconel 718, which is typically used in components such as aircraft engines and gas turbines. However, the research demonstrates an important advancement in additive manufacturing as it relates to materials at the micro-scale, suggesting the future development of lightweight, resource-conscious, and structurally durable small-scale architectural components that can be incorporated in everything from light fixtures to weather-resistant fasteners.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.