Layers of success

New additive manufacturing technology streamlines the process for making tooling.

By Ian Laird | April 2, 2024

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With rapid response steel tooling, layers of metallic powder are deposited onto a surface to form tooling that is more durable and can contain unique internal geometries. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Forging, forming, stamping. These processes are how metal is shaped into everything from the screws you buy at a hardware store to the intricate components of nuclear weapons. These processes also impose high levels of wear and tear on machinery. When machinery—also called tooling—inevitably breaks, production is disrupted as manufacturers wait for equipment to be repaired or replaced.

“Delays from broken tooling are consequential here at the Lab. For me and my team, the frustration comes when a project timeline is set back because we are waiting on tooling,” says Ryan Mier, an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “For industry and private companies, there is a direct financial impact where every day that a machine is not producing parts, revenue is lost. In both cases, when deadlines are approaching, these issues definitely cause stress.”

In an effort to reduce downtime and modernize the production process, a team at Los Alamos developed rapid response steel tooling, a new additive manufacturing (AM) process that won an R&D 100 Award in November 2023.

During AM, which is similar to 3D printing, layers of material are deposited on top of one another to form a desired shape. In the case of rapid response steel tooling, layers of steel and metal alloys are used to make the tools required for metal processing.

“While AM has been around for decades, the widespread use of metal AM—specifically more exotic and high-performance metals—is fairly new,” says Mier, who led the development of rapid response steel tooling. 

Traditionally, tooling production starts with conversations between designers and manufacturers about what designs are feasible. Then, the tooling is produced using subtractive machining—a process in which desired shapes are cut from large steel rods, which results in a lot of metal waste scraps. Those parts must then be heat-treated to harden the steel. This process can be complicated, time consuming, and expensive—especially if there’s a mismatch between design and manufacturing and the process has to be redone.

Rapid response steel tooling streamlines this production process considerably. First, designs can be programmed into AM machines. If a design isn’t feasible, it can’t be programmed. In other words, there is no potential for a mismatch between design and production. The high temperatures and subsequent rapid cooling of AM materials also means additional heat treatment is not required. And because AM uses only the necessary materials, no metal waste is produced. 

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Ryan Mier inspects a part produced using rapid response steel tooling.

Perhaps most importantly, rapid response steel tooling allows users to design, produce, and iterate more complex shapes than can be produced through subtractive manufacturing. Consider, for example, tooling that is used in an extremely hot environment. To prevent deformation, the tooling often contains hollow cooling channels. With traditional methods, producing tooling with channels is a multistep process in which pieces are welded or bolted together. Rapid response steel tooling, however, can produce this tooling in one step. And often, the resulting products are lighter and thus more user-friendly.

“In one case at the Lab, a tool that is 8 inches in diameter was made using both methods,” Mier says. “The machined tool was over 80 pounds. The AM tool was 52 pounds. That 35 percent reduction in weight is substantial and makes the tools safer for operators.”

And although the tools are lighter, they are just as strong, tough, and wear resistant as their predecessors, says researcher Kevin Le, who notes that “the shift from cutting tooling out of large chunks of material to growing tools through additive manufacturing is revolutionary.” ★