Nikon SLM Solutions: Pioneering New Material Parameters for NASA’s GRCop-42 Copper Alloy


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Metal 3D printer manufacturer Nikon SLM Solutions has developed new material parameters for NASA‘s GRCop-42 copper alloy.

The new parameters are designed to meet the increasing demand for GRCop-42 in the space industry. The company hopes that this ready-to-use solution will solve powder supply issues and allow service providers to successfully 3D print space components using Nikon SLM 3D printers.

Designed with scalability in mind, the material parameters are optimized for large-format 3D printers like the NXG XII 600. They reportedly enable a density of 99.97% and stable properties in single- and multi-laser overlap areas of the 3D printer’s build area.

According to a recently published case study, this development showcases Nikon SLM Solutions’ dedication towards providing solutions for GRCop-42, paving the path for its wider adoption in the space industry.

Nikon SLM Solutions allows for reduced supply chain schedules and improved the prospects for future space projects. These results combined with SLM’s open architecture allows scaling the parameter set up to larger platforms such as the NXG XII 600 and NXG XII 600E with a 1.5-meter build height.

NASA’s GRCop-42 material 

GRCop-42 was developed back in 2019 by a team from the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Alabama and the NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Ohio.   

NASA’s broader GRCop alloy group includes a copper-chromium-niobium material with high thermal conductivity and strength. This alloy is specially designed for quick heat dissipation and is perfect for manufacturing liquid rocket engines that require thermal stability and creep resistance.

PANGEA Aerospace and engineering firm AENIUM have previously teamed up to develop and standardize 3D printed propulsion systems using GRCop-42. They aimed to utilize the copper alloy’s material properties for building a functional, cost-effective, and time-efficient PANGEA Aerospike engine.

Nikon SLM is not the pioneer in the proprietary 3D printing process for GRCop-42. In 2021, aerospace additive manufacturing service Sintavia introduced its own 3D printing parameters and heat treatment post-processing stage for the NASA-developed copper alloy.

The GRCop-42 3D printing parameter set from Sintavia was developed on an M400-4 3D printer from Munich-based 3D printer manufacturer EOS. Reports state that these parameters can produce components with densities of at least 99.94% and offer minimum tensile strengths of 28.3 ksi, minimum ultimate yield strengths of 52.7 ksi, and minimum elongations of 32.4%.

Copper parts 3D printed on an EOS M400-4 3D printer. Photo via Sintavia.

3D printed GRCop-42 copper parts. Photo via Sintavia.

Optimizing GRCop-42 to meet growing demand

During the material parameter development process, GRCop-42 powder supply was ensured by Nikon SLM Solutions’ global production partners. Here, powder quality was specified, and the quality of each batch was internally screened.

The company employed two SLM 280 2.0 700W 3D printers during the initial development process. These new parameters are said to offer comparable or superior results to other laser powder bed fusion (L-PBF) 3D printers on the market.

Scalability beyond small components to larger ones can often create problems during the establishment of 3D printing parameters. Nikon SLM analysed laser hatch parameters, border contours, and up- and downskin parameters for ideal surface roughness to address this.

The most effective parameters were chosen and evaluated with high-exposure area builds to determine durability across the whole build platform. Following this, the Nikon SLM team developed a parameter release candidate that underwent testing with various strategies, subsequently followed by a suite of qualification tasks. These 3D print tasks were performed to collect statistical mechanical property data for the entire 3D print platform and across multiple builds.

The parameter release candidate presented a realistic expectation of the mechanical characteristics that could be anticipated from high-exposure 3D prints. These characteristics encompass 290 MPa yield strength, 535 MPa ultimate tensile strength, and 22% elongation after break for vertically machined components. Horizontally machined components provided 340 MPa yield strength, 545 MPa ultimate tensile strength, and 21% elongation after break. The corporation asserts that large components with thin and thick walls that have undergone hot isostatic pressing (HIP) treatment can significantly surpass these values.

The adjustment of scaling factors and beam compensation values are said to have been a key part of the parameter development process. According to Nikon SLM Solutions, these parameters are key to 3D printing parts with high accuracy.  

The company claims that its parameter development approach included the necessary adjustments for scaling and beam compensation. These were reportedly validated and standardized on parts, including test artifacts of different sizes and geometries.   

Looking to the future, Nikon SLM Solutions will work to evaluate the impact of HIP post-processing on mechanical properties, the scalability of post-processing parameters to the NXG XII 600, and parameter optimization for larger parts.  

Build job to test release candidate parameters including horizontal/vertical tensile bars. Photo via Nikon SLM Solutions.

3D printing space-ready components

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