By expanding on its metal additive manufacturing capacity, Protolabs will enable its customers to access a new method of building large-format parts with complex geometries. The build volume of the metal laser melting machine offers significant applications for its growing customer base in the aerospace and automotive industries.
“Our customers, especially in the aerospace industry, have told us they need the ability to create larger parts with complex geometries. Through our partnership with GE Additive, we are responding by scaling up the use of its cutting-edge equipment to further support our customers’ metal production needs,” said Vicki Holt, president, and CEO at Protolabs.
Protolabs’ expanding AM capabilities
Headquartered in Minnesota, Protolabs offers digital manufacturing services from 12 locations around the world and continues to expand. It’s currently redeveloping its Halesfield facility into a £5million European headquarters, which is set to be operational later this year. The headquarters will house at least 50 additional CNC machines and a further 20 additional injection molding presses, to continue its drive towards on-demand manufacturing.
The company has been focused on moving from prototyping into production for the last year. This has been necessitated by a surge in customer demand for increasingly more complex components in high-requirement aerospace applications. Its emphasis is therefore on producing products that are ready for end-use production by utilizing secondary processes.
Protolabs has heightened quality control measures, such as powder analysis, material traceability, and process validation for metal customers in response. DMLS at Protolabs is also ISO 9001 and AS9100D-certified, providing industry-accepted quality standards from within the aerospace sector.
Protolabs and GE Additive
Launching its high requirements Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) offering last June, Protolabs purchased 25 Concept Laser Mlab and M2 machines from GE Additives. The companies have a close business relationship, with Protolabs becoming a founding member of GE Additive’s Manufacturing Partner Network (MPN) two years ago.
The new agreement will see the Protolabs expand on its existing range of polymer and metal 3D printing equipment. In addition to the X Line 2000R, Protolabs has added four more GE Additive Concept Laser M2 printers to its portfolio, all of which are capable of manufacturing parts up to 9.8 in. x 9.8 in. x 13.8 in. (250mm x 250mm x 350mm). These bring Protolabs’ total DMLS machine count to more than 30 metal additive machines.
Protolabs has also invested in new post-processing equipment including a Solukon powder removal system and a new Ipsen vacuum heat-treat furnace. These will improve the consistency of the mechanical properties in any manufactured parts produced, and given the increasing popularity of Solukon systems within the aerospace industry, build on its offering to its aerospace customers.
GE Additive’s X-Line 2000R 3D printer
The X-Line 2000R model is a large format direct metal laser sintering machine (DMLS) which, due to its large build volume, is able to additively manufacture large scale parts. With a volume of 31.5 in. x 15.7 in. x 19.7 in. (800mm x 400mm x 500mm), assemblies can be designed and printed as a single piece.
The 3D printer is built for serialized manufacturing, with dual 1000W lasers that allow large parts to be manufactured quickly, and two rotating build modules which allow for one build to take place while another is being set up.
While the machine can be used with a variety of metal powders, Protolabs will use Inconel 718 as its initial focus material in order to accommodate its aerospace customers. Last January, Protolabs adopted Iconel 718 in its collection of DMLS 3D printing materials due to its high strength and corrosion-resistant properties. The material enables the production of functional end-use 3D printed parts for the aerospace sector.
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Featured image shows Protolabs’ CNC machining facility in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Photo via Protolabs