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First 3-D printing aluminum powder being commercially scaled by HRL Additive

California-based HRL Additive is in the process of scaling and commercializing its high-strength aluminum 3-D printing powder, which it plans to offer to some early-stage commercial customers, the company told S&P Global Platts.

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"We are a new aluminum supplier and are offering a new product, 7A77 powders. We believe the current demand for aluminum powders for additive manufacturing is high and will only grow as high strength alloys like ours become available," Michele Durant, spokesman for HRL Laboratories, of which HRL Additive is a part, said.

HRL is targeting the aerospace and automotive industries, as well as other manufacturers.

In September, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center became the first customer to buy HRL's new powder. Designated as 7A77, it enables never-before-printable parts in high-strength aluminum.

7A77 could unlock the production of large-scale components via fusion-based additive manufacturing. If tested successfully, the feedstock powder could be used in planned large-scale, advanced manufacturing for high-performance aerospace applications, according to the flight center.

The process to make the powder is proprietary, but in summary, HRL says it has developed Al 7A77.60L, a class of 3-D printable high-strength aluminum alloys, which controls melting and solidification to eliminate the cracking phenomenon in high-strength aluminum (2000 and 7000 series) specifically for additive manufacturing.

High-strength wrought 7000 and 2000 series aluminum alloys have been used for decades and are critical to many products from aircraft to sporting goods. These alloys are known for strength and low-cost alloying additions such as zinc, magnesium and copper but have not been successfully 3-D printable partly because of cracks that form during melting and solidification. The issue has fundamentally prevented the use of these alloys in metal additive manufacturing -- the process, also known as 3-D printing, by which metal parts are joined or solidified from a feedstock, explained Durant.

HRL engineers announced their innovative solution in a 2017 Nature magazine article on 3-D printing of high-strength aluminum alloys. Using aluminum powder, they were able to 3-D print high-strength aluminum for the first time ever, and since the summer of 2019, HRL has produced industrial levels of feedstock.

7A77 became the first additive feedstock registered by the Aluminum Association, which HRL sees as a sign of substantially increased interest and market infiltration.

"The additive has been used substantially in prototyping, but as it is emerging into production greater quality control, regulation and registration with the global community is required," said Durant.

"Aluminum is an excellent engineering material, it is lightweight, strong, and low-cost. These characteristics have made it essential for cars, planes, consumer electronics, sporting and home goods. With additive manufacturing there are so many new design possibilities we really don't know where it may end up. That is the beauty of this breakthrough, the sky is the limit," Durant said.

-- Ekaterina Bouckley, katya.bouckley@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Anthony Poole, newsdesk@spglobal.com