Powder Bed Fusion (PBF), often called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) Selective, is one of the most used Additive Manufacturing technologies to produce structural plastic parts. It does not require molds or support structures. Furthermore, it can produce complex geometries, internal structures and thin walls with mechanical properties comparable to injection-molded parts. This shortens the development cycle and makes it an alternative for many work pieces and even whole assemblies.
The SLS process principle
In the SLS process, a thin layer of powder is applied on the build platform and heated to just below the melting temperature of the material, which is often referred to as the build temperature (heaters not shown in the schematic). Next, a laser traces the cross-section of the part geometry of the first layer, providing enough energy to locally melt the material. Without any shear forces, the melt needs to have a low viscosity and surface tension to coalesce and form a uniform melt pool. The surrounding powder stays solid and keeps the shape of the molten geometry. Therefore, no support structures are needed. This can be seen by the three N-shaped built parts in the powder bed. Now the build platform is lowered by one layer height making room for the next layer. A sweeper or recoater roller moves across the surface, picks up excess material from the reservoir and deposits new and colder powder on top of the build platform to create the next layer. Again, the powder is heated to keep it at the build temperature. This is important to hinder crystallization. The whole build envelope is kept in a nitrogen atmosphere to reduce effects of aging. These process steps of powder coating and laser melting are repeated over and over until the whole part is built. Only then is the build envelope cooled down, which initiates the crystallization and thus solidification process of the part. After the part and surrounding powder is cooled completely, the part is unpacked.
Materials used in the SLS process
The first material used in this process was PA12, because of its good mechanical performance and the ability to generate powders by precipitation. This yields powder with close to perfect spherical shape, which is necessary to create a uniform layer during coating. It still makes up 90-95% of all materials used in SLS today. However, in recent years, more and more materials have been qualified for the process including high-performance materials such as PEEK, elastomeric materials such as TPUs and even commodity materials such as PP. Most of them are produced by cryogenic grinding and show more or less pronounced deviations from the circular shape .
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Thermal analysis and rheology supporting successful SLS processes
Research and development focusing on SLS processes are targeted when investigating new materials for SLS. The aim is to determine their suitability for SLS, define the process window, analyze the formation of the pool melt and understand how fillers change the properties of powder and the finished parts. In the following blog posts, we will shed light on different analysis methods using thermal analysis and rheology instruments to characterize key parameters, including the determination of the process window and isothermal crystallization of SLS powders with Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) as well as studying residual stress and warpage in SLS.
How to Determine the Process Window for SLS Powders Using DSC
In order to characterize a polymer powder for its suitability for SLS and to determine the possible process window, Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) is used. Learn how to set up and interpret the measurements!
How to Study the Isothermal Crystallization Behavior of SLS Powder Using DSC
In a previous article, the process window in the Selective Laser Sintering process with polyamide 12 powder was determined with dynamic measurements. In this article, we explain how isothermal measurements can be used for more advanced studies.
Wilo: Better Performance with Fiber-Reinforced 3D Printed Components
Wilo SE is a worldwide manufacturer of pumps and pump systems for building services, the entire water management chain and industry. It comes as no surprise that Wilo is working with cutting-edge technologies such as Additive Manufacturing. Learn how they use the NETZSCH DSC 214 Polyma to understand the thermal behavior of new material choices.
 Schmid, M. (2018): Laser Sintering with Plastics – Technology, Processes and Materials, Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich.