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Bringing the promise of advanced nano-material products closer, thanks to a new process

Nano-technologies and materials are already changing many products, with predictions that the market could grow to an estimated 2.6 trillion US dollars. With this growth contingent on improved micro-component manufacturing at volume, does the EU-funded MICRO-FAST project point the way forward?
Bringing the promise of advanced nano-material products closer, thanks to a new process
The last decade has witnessed a marked miniaturisation of both manufacturing components and associated equipment, with scales typically ranging from the miniature (< 50.0 mm), to the micro (<1.0 mm) and even the sub-micro (0.1 to 1.0 mm). However, traditional fabrication, machining and forming techniques limit the range of materials which can be processed, holding back the introduction of new tools, new components and ultimately, products for market.

The EU-funded MICRO-FAST project set out to meet this challenge by developing a completely new manufacturing technology for the volume production of high-quality, net-shaped, micro-sized parts using a wide range of powder materials (metallic alloys, composites, ceramics and polymers), at low cost.

Developing a whole new micro-manufacturing process

Finding that it was not practically possible to simply scale down the pre-existing sintering technique known as FAST (Field Assisted Sintering Technique), the MICRO-FAST team successfully developed a completely new micro-component process for the micro-scale (<5.0 mm).

Micro-forming tools underwent advanced surface treatment and techniques were developed for high-temperature applications. The team developed nanostructured metal and ceramic powders, which compared to traditional techniques, offered improved quality and properties for bulk parts. As the project leader Professor Yi Qin explains, ‘Sintering of a bulk micro-component from powder, was achieved with the FAST technique by simultaneously applying a pressure and a controlled electrical current through a die filled with powder.’ The electrical current through the powder particles resulted in more electro-plasticity, allowing for both more complex shapes and better component density, without the need to apply a high temperature for a lengthy period.

By applying Life-Cycle Assessments MICRO-FAST found that they had achieved close to full density for the sintered components, with over 98 % for titanium and steel powder, and almost 96 % for ceramics. Reduced emissions were also observed, largely due to the use of the ‘ready to press’ new powders that didn’t need the addition of binders or solvents. The project also found that compared to traditional sintering - thanks to less production steps and the integrated nature of the system - energy consumption was reduced by 20-30 %. Reaching sintering temperatures around 20 % less than conventional processes, coupled with fast-heating and cooling, enabled shorter production cycles, further producing energy savings.

Savings also look set to be made in the overall cost. As Prof Yi Qin outlines, ‘MICRO-FAST enables a single-step production avoiding the lengthy binder mixing and debindering process of current long-chained powder metallurgy production techniques and this positively affects the overall cost.’ Additionally, it is anticipated that direct economic gains for SME participants involved in machine building, tools production and powder manufacturing could see an increase of around 10 % in their annual turnover, in the three years after the project end.

Shaping the future of product innovations

Being the first such production system available means that the MICRO-FAST technology is expected to generate significant interest. As Prof Yi Qin summarises, ‘One single manufacturing platform has evident advantages in terms of cost, production time and reduction of manual work; furthermore, the environmental impact will be consistently reduced.’ Added to this, several high-quality powders developed during the project, will enable sintering processes with better process control (less wear of tooling, higher yield, reduced emissions) and better product quality (control of dimensions and improved surface finish).

Ultimately, the ability to utilise difficult-to-cut and difficult-to-form materials to manufacture innovative and high quality micro-components, such as those with magnetic properties or biocompatibility, will prove a real asset for EU manufacturing sectors seeking to gain a competitive technological and business edge

Keywords

MICRO-FAST Nanotechnology, micro-component manufacturing, micro-sized parts, Life-Cycle Assessments, powder materials, single manufacturing platform, product innovations
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