Metal AM Autumn 2021

Page 155

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Breaking free of support structures

I want to break free: The journey towards reducing or eliminating support structures Support structures have been there for us since the beginning of AM, anchoring us to a firm foundation and taking the heat when things get intense. But they also bring with them baggage that is now holding us back, blocking channels and taking up valuable time and materials. Is it time to break free? In this article, Jennifer Coyne and John Barnes, of The Barnes Global Advisors, explore our journey so far with support structures, their advantages and disadvantages, and consider the opportunities and impact of the shift towards 'support free' strategies. Through three case studies, cost and productivity of conventional and 'support free' production are compared.

As we contemplate recent developments that minimise the need for support structures in Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) Additive Manufacturing, Queen’s 1984 hit song ‘I want to break free’ inevitably plays in our heads. In the AM world, nothing elicits a strong reaction like the mere mention of supports and support structures. It’s with mixed emotions that process engineers will design them in to hold the build together until completion; but, at the same time, they know that some geometries cannot be built without supports. How do they break free? In our minds, there is an AM pub where regular arguments break out about the best kinds of supports: pins, curtains, on and on. The group commiserates as they share tragic support removal stories of hands being punctured with tools from the 19th century. The materials engineers sit on one side of the bar and cast condescending looks at their mechanical engineering colleagues, because, after all, the supports aren’t just about mechanics: they affect the microstructure. Regular arguments break out. Supports hold the part in

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place! No, supports control solidification! In the shadows of the AM pub, programme managers sit with crossed arms muttering about the need for a business case. Everyone wants the option to break free of supports. In the regular world, supports, supporters and support networks are all good things. You support a

colleague having a bad day – perhaps after having hurt themselves removing a block support or lost a build because the support separated and caused a recoater jam. In the AM world, supports limit what can be made, because they take time to build, consume material, and cost more money to remove and dispose of, so there is a real expense

Fig. 1 The ability to reduce support structures has become a hot topic in Laser Beam Powder Bed Fusion (Courtesy SLM Solutions)

Metal Additive Manufacturing | Autumn 2021


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