Public Release: 

DOE honors INEEL RSP tooling fabrication process

DOE/Idaho National Laboratory

Two scientists at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory have been honored by the DOE for technology that demonstrates the DOE's commitment to save money and improve the quality of life for consumers.

Energy@23 Awards highlight innovations since the DOE was first established as a Cabinet agency in 1977, 23 years ago. The DOE assembled a team of citizen judges to choose among 100 nominated technologies for those with the most consumer impact or future potential.

The INEEL's Rapid Solidification Process (RSP) Tooling won 20th place in the Energy@23 category. INEEL researchers Kevin McHugh and Bruce Wickham will be honored with a certificate of achievement from DOE Headquarters.

"This is wonderful," McHugh said. This award is the second for RSP Tooling, which won a 1998 R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine for technological innovation.

"This is an honor to be recognized by the Department of Energy in this way," said Marty Sorensen, manager of industrial and materials technologies at the INEEL, who oversees McHugh's work. "RSP Tooling is really a tremendous advancement in tooling fabrication."

Nearly all mass-produced items require molds or dies for their formation. Manufacturers from car makers to toy companies are always looking for ways to make dies more quickly and cheaply. Compared to conventional fabrication methods, RSP Tooling reduces cost and turn-around time for production of precision tooling by a factor of 5 to 10.

The process involves spraying layers of molten metal onto a three-dimensional pattern and building up the layers into a full-size die. McHugh called his invention a "souped-up paint sprayer."

Currently, the INEEL can produce dies, also called tooling, up to 4 inches square. The process allows a remarkable level of detail to be incorporated into the tooling. The technology has been licensed to Global Metals Technologies, Inc, to commercialize the process for making tooling for rapid prototyping and production.

The rapid solidification process circumvents the majority of the fabrication steps in conventional methods. A high-velocity jet of inert gas sprays tiny droplets of molten metal onto a plastic or ceramic pattern, depending on the alloy used. Because the surface area of the droplets is so great compared to their volume, the droplets cool somewhere between 100 to 100,000 degrees per second. Such a fast cooling rate results in unusual beneficial characteristics of the alloy.

"Rapid solidification creates a condition that's very unique," said McHugh. "It produces a very uniform microstructure and allows the properties of many die steels to be tailored using 'artificial aging' instead of conventional heat treatment. Industry has demonstrated that artificial aging benefits many die steels. RSP dies last about 20% longer than conventional, machined dies."

Rapid solidification results in a combination of liquid, solid and "slushy" droplets coating the tool pattern. The slushiness allows the droplets to stick together as they hit the pattern, and may contribute to the level of detail RSP can achieve. The process does not avoid all post-fabrication steps, however. After depositing the spray on the mold or die, the pattern is removed, the deposit is trimmed to fit a standard mold base, and is heat treated, if necessary.

In prototype development, initial dies can be designed, created and tested within a few days. Changes to the die can be incorporated quickly and inexpensively. When the design is satisfactory, the prototype can be directly used for production without additional steps.

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The INEEL is a science-based, applied engineering national laboratory dedicated to supporting the U.S. Department of Energy's missions in national security, environment, energy and science. The INEEL is operated for the DOE by Bechtel BWXT Idaho, LLC, in partnership with the Inland Northwest Research Alliance.

Kristen A. Burns, 208-526-4723, burnka@inel.gov

Visit our website at http://www.inel.gov

Note to editors: A full listing of DOE Energy@23 and Bright Light awards can be found at the URL http://www.ma.doe.gov/energy100/. Photos of products fabricated with RSP Tooling are available from the media contact below. Kevin McHugh can be reached at 208-525-5713 or kmm4@inel.gov.

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