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Image credit: US Army Research Laboratory

Image credit: US Army Research Laboratory

Laser Cutter Enables Hands-Free 3D Metal Part Folding

Maryland, US: Researchers from the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) have developed a laser cutter that can create complex 3D parts directly from a blank sheet of metal.

The study, published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies, can help soldiers and other users rapidly build self-forming replacements parts in remote locations, without the need to bring them in from another location.

Laser cutters are typically designed to cut 2D parts from a single sheet of material using a focussed light source that heats metal, allowing the material to leave the surface. The new technology sees the laser set to a lower power level, causing controlled heating instead of cutting.

The heating causes relative expansion, which in turns enables the metal to be bent through laser forming. With laser forming, the direction in which the metal bends (up or down) can be controlled with power and beam speed, which is an advantageous aspect that cannot be achieved with the traditional approach.

“Without ever having to touch the workpiece, we went from a blank, unpatterned sheet of metal to a complex 3D part, including up and down folds, all with the laser itself,” said Dr Nathan Lazarus, researcher at the ARL. “This combination of etching, cutting and two types of folding, one mechanism for folding up and another for folding down, was the primary innovation of our work.”

This process is all hands-free, low-cost efficient and compatible with fabricating thousands of parts at a time.

Currently, it is difficult to get modern technology to rural areas, especially in developing countries, and low-cost devices such as 3D printers and laser cutters are easier to install in these locations to rapidly build tools and other items.

Initial demonstrations of the laser forming have included a wide range of possible parts from cubes and coils to arcs and cylinders. Materials that can be laser formed include metal, glass and crystalline semiconductors.

“This is a general advance for a widely-available laser machining technology, which complements the revolution in computer controlled additive manufacturing,” informed Dr Gabriel Smith, researcher at the ARL. “We have a number of on-going projects building on our initial work. These range from investigating scaling up in power and build volume to looking at building a variety of useful devices. We have had interest from both within and outside of ARL to extend this work.”

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