Laser Prototypes Europe (LPE) is one of the UK and Ireland’s longest-standing specialists in rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing for a plethora of industries. Among its many services is DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) – the 3D printing of metal parts. The ability to print components with complex geometries in short cycle times is a huge competitve advantage for LPE and its customers. The DMLS process requires a lot of heat and energy to sinter the powder, which creates in-built stresses that can lead to distortion of the part. To counter this effect, heatsinks and anchors must be added to the component. After 3D printing, wire EDM is used as a finishing process to remove these and achieve final tolerance. Here, LPE has just added a second machine to its portfolio, a VL600QH from Sodi-Tech EDM, which is performing duties some 50% faster than the existing Sodick machine installed in 2017.
LPE was established in 1991 by current Managing Director Tom Walls. As the first UK company to install an EOS rapid prototyping system, LPE has continued to invest in the latest technologies and materials.
A complete metal sintering service is provided by LPE, embracing in-house metallurgy, stress relieving, wire EDM, bead blasting and five-axis machining. Central to the company’s offer is DMLS, which sinters together layers of metal powder to form parts with density as high as 99.99%. However, this level of density creates a number of subsequent challenges.
“AM presents a unique problem for EDM: the density and shape of the support structure makes DMLS parts very difficult to wire without continuous wire breakages,” explains Mr Walls. “In addition, there are lattice type structures within the parts, and sometimes powder can be found in pockets, all of which add to the challenge. Unfortunately, wire breakages occur fairly frequently. For this reason, we need wire EDM machines with quick re-threading and re-datuming capabilities, which is why we use Sodick.”
LPE installed its first Sodick wire EDM in 2017, an AQ537L model. Although the machine has performed well, such has been the company’s growth trajectory that wire EDM became a bottleneck. In recent years the privately-owned business has been growing at a rate of 5-20% year-on-year.
“We also thought it was a risk to continue running with just one wire EDM,” says Mr Walls. “Don’t get me wrong, the machine hasn’t missed a beat, but if anything unforeseen was to happen, it would have a major impact on lead times. So, to both increase capacity and mitigate risk, we decided to invest in a second Sodick. The reliability of our first machine has been such that there was never any chance we would look elsewhere.”
At LPE, which relocated to larger premises in 2013, both high resolution (down to 0.015mm) and production standard resolution (0.06mm) can be offered to cater for different customer demands. Due to LPE’s focus on quality, all DMLS parts are subjected to stress relieving before making their way to the Sodick wire EDMs.
“With the new machine we’ve certainly noticed that technology has moved on,” says Mr Walls. “The way the wire is driven has been improved, delivering better control if it thinks it might break. Also, if the wire does break, it is much faster at re-threading and getting back to its cut position, which contributes to higher productivity. Performing wire EDM on a row of 20 DMLS parts would previously take around 4 hours, but we can complete them in half that time using the VL600QH. Both the machine interface and software are also better.”
Installed in late July 2019, the Sodick VL600QH with linear motor technology is an advanced, high-performance wire EDM with the capability to accommodate tall workpieces thanks to 500mm of travel in the Z axis.
“We deliberately opted for a machine with axis travels that would allow us to grow the size of workpiece we can process,” explains Mr Walls.
At present, the company offers metal sintering in four materials: stainless steel, hardening stainless steel, aluminium and titanium. DMLS parts offer a direct replacement for traditional machined components, which is why they are proving increasingly popular for Formula One parts, medical devices, dental devices, aerospace components, tooling inserts and high-temperature applications, to list but a few.
LPE, which is both ISO 9001 and ISO 13485 registered, estimates it will grow by a further 10-15% this year as demand for metal additive manufacturing continues to ramp up.
“There are many factors that set us apart from our competitors,” conclude Mr Walls. “For instance, all customers receive a rapid quote, a dedicated project team and ongoing support and advice from a designated sales contact. Moreover, our knowledge is second to none, which is why we are continuing our research with universities and industry, and currently support four PhD students and four post-doctoral students with their research in advanced process control and powder development for metal laser sintering.”
Laser Prototypes Europe Ltd, 4 Prince Regent Road, Belfast, BT5 6QR. Tel: 028 9070 6940, e-mail: email@example.com, www.laserproto.com
SMPR Limited, Dovecote Cottage, Manor Court, Stretton on Fosse, GL56 9SB
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Sodi-Tech EDM Ltd., Agincourt Road, Warwick, CV34 6XZ
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