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  • Periodic Report Summary 2 - MICRO-FAST (A FAST process and production system for high-throughput, highly flexible and cost-efficient volume production of miniaturised components made of a wide range of materials)

Micro-FAST Report Summary

Project ID: 608720
Funded under: FP7-NMP
Country: Italy

Periodic Report Summary 2 - MICRO-FAST (A FAST process and production system for high-throughput, highly flexible and cost-efficient volume production of miniaturised components made of a wide range of materials)

Project Context and Objectives:
Electric-Field activated sintering technique (FAST) is a latest development in powder sintering which enables an increase of manufacturing flexibility and high-quality components with a wide range of materials - e.g. various metal alloys, Cermets, magnets and composites with desired structures and functionalities, including use of nanostructured alloys. However, existing FAST processes cannot be simply scaled down to the manufacture of miniature/micro-components, due to a series of factors like difficulties of handling powders, strong “size-effects” at the micro-scale, different sintering mechanisms at the micro/nano-scale and the lack of tooling design, manufacturing guidance and facilities for mass production of complex shaped components. In fact, almost all the current applications of FAST involve component reflecting these constraints.

A new process and machine concept - Micro-FAST - is proposed to scale down conventional FAST process to the micro-scale (<5.0mm) combining the micro-forming with FAST sintering in a high efficiency system. The process is able to deliver near-net-shaped, bulk fully-dense (up to 100%), micro-parts with expected significant increase of mechanical and functional properties. These parts are used in mechanical applications that require high precision and the use of different kind of materials (i.e. watch industry), in automotive application to enhance the mechanical properties of engine parts made with light alloys, in electro-actuators that need a combination of special materials with difficult geometries, but also in other fields of applications requiring biocompatible or magnetic properties.

The manufacturing system developed in the project relies on a new industrial Micro-FAST automated machine able to work with high-performance nanostructured materials and on new tooling techniques to make dedicated micro-tools that ensure an accurate and reliable geometry of the sintered parts. The machine includes different modules, as the powder-feeding for high precision filling of the mold, inline monitoring and quality inspections systems to ensure the quality control of the parts. In order to support the micro-structural behavior of materials and their interactions with the Micro-FAST process, the creation of an innovative multi-scale modelling technique is also implemented.
The development will lead to substantial improvement in the large scale manufacture of micro components, overcoming the current limitations of other techniques as metal injection molding thanks to the reduction of the manufacturing steps in just one single production system.

The whole development will support the EU-wide product innovation involving use of miniature and micro-components in many manufacturing sectors and, especially with difficult-to-cut and difficult-to-form materials.

The whole project will take into account energy savings, cost and waste reduction and recycling issues that will be analysed thoroughly through an expertise Life-Cycle Assessment.

Project Results:
The work has been focused on the specification, executive design and realisation of the Micro-FAST sintering press and of the sub-systems (powder feeding, die set transportation, ejection, laser die cleaning and inspection) together with the development and manufacture of nanostructured powder materials and tools for the Micro-FAST process.

The Micro-FAST forming press was designed and assembled with the integrated automated transportation system for the die set. The machine realized in the project is capable to produce small and micro components in the dimensional range up to 50mm with elevated productivity and using a wide range of powders (reactive metal alloys, metal composites and ceramic) in a process under controlled vacuum atmosphere.
The powder feeding system is capable to fill the die with the required amount of powder for the to-be-sintered component, with tolerance lower than 1% (less than 10mg of deviation for smaller parts). Dedicated ejection system was designed and realized in order to eject the small sintered components after the production process without damaging the tools and the components too.
The inspection system was developed to automatically detect conditions of the tools after the manufacturing process and the laser die-cleaning system is capable to remove the cluster agglomeration distribution on the tooling surfaces after and to perform an accurate cleaning of the tools.
The press and the subsystems interacts through a common software management environment.

The production chain of materials manufacture, quality characterization and testing for the Micro-FAST process has been validated. The synthesis routes for nanostructured powders processing to achieve the required properties have been up-scaled and the powders produced have been assessed against the quality of a first set of sintered parts.
The tools for the micro-FAST process have been manufactured and optimized thanks to tool-surface modification techniques and thin coatings to ensure the required resistance to high temperatures , high load and low friction to be applied during the sintering process.
To support the process development a wide set of sintering tests with a lab-scale equipment have been performed to tune the sintering process parameters and to optimize the powder materials and the tools

The Life Cycle Analysis of and Multi-scale Modelling to support the process and the evaluation of technology performance have been developed and are planned to be concluded at the end of the project.

The consortium has defined the design and selected the industrial demonstrators to be manufactured by Micro-FAST machine. The market analysis and economic impact associated with selection of case studies have been performed.

All the technologies and machine developed have been set up in an industrial environment to start the demonstration activities of the selected micro-components. The manufacturing trials, validation and zero-series production with Micro-FAST machine is planned to continue until the end of the project.

Potential Impact:
The key exploitable results expected at the end of the project were identified and characterized in terms of potential impacts and market perspectives. In this project the whole supply chain is involved and that is a strong support for future business development.

Machine System and Sub-Systems
The core project result is represented by Micro-FAST sintering press for the production of high quality components. This will be the first kind of machine for the manufacture of miniaturized full dense bulk-form micro-components with controlled micro-structures, using a wide range of materials. The innovative and fast process combining micro-forming and electrical-field activated sintering technology (FAST) is expected to generate significant impact in the micro manufacturing sector, as no such a production system is available at the moment.
The individual sub-systems developed in the project will be also exploited in other applications in different industrial environments.
The powder feeding system will allow to achieve higher production efficiency for high precision powder dosing for micro/nano-manufacturing processes with the possibility to use also powder with very fine size and irregular shape.
The laser die-cleaning technique and the system for powder-related manufacturing applications will add production efficiency and promote high process integration in the forming and sintering industry in general.
In-situ micro-component robotic handling method and device built to manage fragile parts can extend robotic handling to micro powder sintering applications in the powder metallurgy industry to increase the automation level of existing systems.
The optical-fibre based inline measurement system represents a new method to overcome several key problems in inline measurement in micro-manufacturing and automation industry in general.
Condition monitoring, adaptive control and the production management system for Micro-FAST are novel techniques for monitoring and managing of a production system for micro-manufacturing that will enhance capability of quality control and increase production efficiency.

Materials and Tooling
Several high-quality powders are developed that can be used in the FAST applications as well as also in other powder metallurgy processes.
Nanostructured Titanium based powder by mechanical alloying aims to achieve higher performance and decrease the forming temperature to achieve higher density and save the sintering tools life.
Micro-sized ceramic powders will be obtained through a unique and versatile chemical synthesis process delivering controlled and homogenous chemical and structural composition and optimized flowability, enabling high quality sintered products.
Materials prepared by improved spray drying techniques will enable sintering processes with better process control (less wear of tooling, higher yield, reduced emissions) and better products quality (control of dimensions, improved and surface finish).
In order to improve tool performance, extend tool-life and in this way promote industry applications of Micro-FAST process, surface coating techniques are developed for high-temperature applications together with active-screen plasma co-alloying technology to enhance oxidation and wear resistance and reducing friction coefficient of tool surfaces.
In addition to these results, the first multiscale modelling methods technique for FAST process and is being developed. to enhance process understanding and process control.

High quality components and parts produced are expected to have impacts in the field of miniaturised component, both for users and manufacturers. The production of all these parts through the Micro-FAST process will result in better performances and also economical and industrial advantages compared to current solutions.

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PAOLO Matteazzi, (President)
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