Prototypes from powder

Two University of Queensland researchers have designed a new aluminium alloy and treatment process to turn aluminium powder into a specialised part in two days.

Polymers have traditionally been cheaper to make and easier to use for specialised test parts but have lacked metals’ strength and durability.

The alloy composition and process, created by UQ’s powder metallurgy unit head Professor Graham Schaffer and research fellow Dr Tim Sercombe, involves the selective laser sintering (SLS) of a mix of aluminium and nylon powders.

Once objects have been sintered, they are then infiltrated with a second aluminium alloy to leave a strong, dense component.

So far, parts up to 20 centimetres long have been made, including gears, pulleys, wheels and chess pieces.

Professor Schaffer said the system would probably be used to produce small, complicated shaped mechanical parts, but there was no size restraint.

‘The key is that we can make very complicated shapes, very quickly,’ he said.

‘The market for aluminium parts is substantial because the automotive industry is one of the biggest users of rapid prototyping and they’re also one of the biggest users of aluminium,’ he concluded.

The three-year UQ project was funded by Californian manufacturer 3D Systems and UK-based The Aluminium Powder Company and licensed to 3D Systems for commercialisation.