Sandia National Laboratories at the Forefront of Material Science Evaluation for Additive Manufacturing (AM)


Sandia National Laboratories recently announced a team of engineers and scientists has designed and built a high-throughput six-sided robotic work cell to speed up qualification and testing of additively manufactured parts. The new system called “Alinstante”, Spanish for “in an instant”, is a result of a Sandia Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funded project.

We caught up with Dr. Brad Boyce, material scientist at Sandia, to learn more about Alinstante in an exclusive AMazing® Q&A conversation.


AMazing®: Dr. Boyce, thank you for your participation. In an earlier press release, we learned you were part of a Sandia Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) funded project that explored the use of rapid, streamlined mechanical testing for additively manufactured metals. What was objective of the project? What were some challenges that you and the team faced devising a system for the qualification of laser manufactured parts?

Brad Boyce: The overall project goal was to streamline the qualification of additively manufactured products. In the long run, the vision would be to master additive qualification using process-aware design, in-process monitoring, adaptive feedback control, and predictive process-structure-property models so that as soon as parts came out of the printer, they would be “born qualified” for use.

One of the challenges we face is that all of those capabilities require a profound understanding of the impact of process variations, either intentional or not, on resulting performance. The physics of the additive processes are so complex: in metal powder bed processes the complexity includes particle packing, laser-metal interactions, fluid dynamics, rapid solidification, non-equilibrium phase transformations, and so much more. So we need a lot of data fast to develop improved physical understanding. Alinstante is also a hedge against the models – even in the absence of predictive physics models, fast empirical assessment can aid in qualification.

Brad Boyce watches as the Alinstante robotic work cell scans a 3D-printed part to compare what was made to the original design. This test part was devised to push the limits of 3D printing technology. The goal of Alinstante is to speed up the testing of 3D-printed parts and materials science research. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Brad Boyce watches as the Alinstante robotic work cell scans a 3D-printed part to compare what was made to the original design. This test part was devised to push the limits of 3D printing technology. The goal of Alinstante is to speed up the testing of 3D-printed parts and materials science research. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

AMazing®: As we understand, “Alinstante” is a workcell with up to six “petal” work stations, arranged around a commercial robot, with each work station a commercial or custom modular testing system. What types of modules have been tested? Are there any limitations to the types of modules that can be adapted to Alinstante for material science evaluation?

Brad Boyce: So far we have utilized only two modules: the sample handling module and the 3D scanning module. We have a mechanical testing load frame module that is under current development, and we have plans or ideas about a number of other potential modules, such as a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy module for chemistry assessment and an Archimedes module for density measurement.

Ultimately we want to also integrate the printer itself as a module, so that the user does not have to manually load the printed parts into the system. And we would like to include not just diagnostics but also post-print processing such as subtractive machining, surface finishing, or heat treating. The limitations we accepted in this first version is a 10 pounds weight and 8x8x8 inch working volume for the printed part. Ideally the module would fit inside a 24×24 inch instrument rack, but we have ways to accommodate larger instruments such as an x-ray computed tomography scanner.

Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

Image courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

AMazing®: It has been widely reported metal additive manufacturing is surging with some companies buying multiple machines for added capacity. How important is it for users to consider a system like Alinstante when evaluating capacity?

Brad Boyce: A point I emphasize is that capital expenditures on printers should be roughly matched with expenditures on support equipment. In the case of metal powder bed, that includes not only powder sifting for reuse and an electrodischarge machine to remove the part from the baseplate, but also a computed tomography machine to scan for internal defects, a 3D scanner to check part shape, and other appropriate metallurgical capabilities. In my opinion printing parts fast is only half the battle – you need to be able to confirm the parts quality just as fast. It does not make sense to print the part in a day and then wait in a queue for 3 months to confirm that the part has the desired grain structure.

AMazing®: How do you envision Alinstante in the “smart factory of tomorrow” to enable economical series production of metal and polymer parts?

Brad Boyce: Automation has been integral since the early days of the industrial revolution. In some ways, Alinstante is a “no brainer”: applying concepts of automation to rapid qualification. Perhaps where we see Alinstante’s biggest departure is in its flexibility. Normally an automation framework is developed for a single product line, whether it’s a new car or a semiconductor fab. With Alinstante, the modularity allows you to employ different elements as different parts come off the production line. This is particularly relevant to small volume production or customized production such as prosthetics. One of the strengths of additive manufacturing is to be able to customize and redesign rapidly, so Alinstante gives you the flexibility to assess that new concept without having to revamp the qualification approach.

Video courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

AMazing®: Finally, the Alinstante team is seeking partners to support the development of new modules for rapid testing, prototyping, research and development needs. Is your search limited to metal AM users or polymer based AM users as well? What would an ideal partner look like?

Brad Boyce:  Actually, we have used Alinstante already for 3D printed metals, polymers and ceramics – so we would look for partners in any of these areas. Perhaps with regard to qualification, metals and ceramics have to meet higher requirements, such as strength and thermal capability, so those are areas that might need the most emphasis.

An ideal partner would be one that is interested in developing and deploying their own version of Alinstante to meet their own needs; or an automation partner who wants to develop Alinstante as a commercial product line. As a national lab, Sandia will not compete with industry. We can assist in the customization and even potentially support a deployed system through a number of partnership mechanisms such as cooperative research and development agreements. In the long run, as partners add new module capabilities, then each new user benefits from the prior investments. We’ve already paid down the initial investment and risk.

This concludes our interview. Dr. Boyce, thank you very much for your participation. We are very grateful for the opportunity to learn about Sandia’s ongoing commitment to AM material science evaluation.


Dr. Brad Boyce, material scientist at Sandia (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

Dr. Brad Boyce, Sandia National Laboratories (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

About Dr. Brad Boyce
Brad Boyce is a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories. Dr. Boyce received the B.S. degree from Michigan Technological University in 1996 in Metallurgical Engineering and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Materials Science and Engineering in 1998 and 2001 from the University of California at Berkeley.

Dr. Boyce joined the technical staff at Sandia in 2001 where his research interests lie in material reliability. He has approximately 100 peer reviewed archival publications in in areas such as micro/nano-device performance, nanoindentation, fracture in structural alloys, weld metallurgy, ocular tissue viscoelasticity, and fatigue mechanisms.

Dr. Boyce has served as a Key Reader for Metallurgical and Materials Transactions. He has guest edited issues of Thin Solid Films, Experimental Mechanics, International Journal of Fracture, International Journal of Fatigue, and JOM as well as MRS proceedings books. Dr. Boyce has served in a number of professional societies including TMS, The Mineral, Metals, and Materials Society where he serves on the Board of Directors.

About Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory operated by National Technology and Engineering Solutions of Sandia LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International Inc., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia Labs has major research and development responsibilities in nuclear deterrence, global security, defense, energy technologies and economic competitiveness, with main facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Livermore, California.

Manette Fisher
Corporate Communications & Media Relations
Sandia National Laboratories
[email protected]

To read the Sandia press release titled ‘Sandia’s Robotic Work Cell Conducts High-Throughput Testing ‘In An Instant’, press here.

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