Flatness is a tricky term to define. Technically, it is the deviation, or lack of deviation, from a plane. However, something that appears flat to human eye often turns out not to be at all flat when looked at closely and measured with a high resolution instrument. It’s a bit like how the ocean might appear flat and smooth to a passenger sitting comfortably in a window seat of an aeroplane and looking down at the surface of the water below but feels like a roller-coaster to a sailor in a small yacht. Of course, if the passenger looks at the horizon instead of down at the yacht below then they will realise the surface of the ocean is curved but this is unlikely to be apparent to the sailor who can only see the next line of waves advancing towards them. Of course, the Earth is not flat and the waves are better described as surface roughness. Some months ago I wrote about our struggles to build a thin flat metallic plate using additive manufacturing [see ‘If you don’t succeed, try and try again…’ on September 29th, 2021]. At the time, we were building our rectangular plates in landscape orientation and using buttresses to support them during the manufacturing process; however, when we removed the plates from the machine and detached the buttresses they deformed into a dome-shape. I am pleased to say that our perseverance has paid off and recently we have been much more successful by building our plates orientated in portrait mode, i.e., with the short side of the rectangle horizontal, and using a more sophisticated design of buttresses. Viewed from the right perspective our recent plates could be considered flat though in reality they deviate from a plane by less than 3% of their in-plane dimensions and also have a surface roughness of several tens of micrometres (that’s the average deviation from the surface). The funding organisations for our research expect us to publish our results in a peer-reviewed journal that will only accept novel unpublished results so I am not going to say anything more about our flat plates. Instead let me return to the ocean analogy and try to make you seasick by recalling an earlier career in which I was on duty on the bridge of an aircraft carrier ploughing through seas so rough, or not flat, that waves were breaking over the flight deck and the ship felt like it was still rolling and pitching when we sailed serenely into port some days later.
You would not think it was difficult to build a thin flat metallic plate using a digital description of the plate and a Laser Powder Bed Fusion (L-PBF) machine which can build complex components, such as hip prostheses. But it is. As we have discovered since we started our research project on the thermoacoustic response of additively manufactured parts (see ‘Slow start to an exciting new project on thermoacoustic response of AM metals‘ on September 9th, 2020). L-PBF involves using a laser beam to melt selected regions of a thin layer of metal powder spread over a flat bed. The selected regions represent a cross-section of the desired three-dimensional component and repeating the process for each successive cross-section results in the additive building of the component as each layer solidifies. And there in those last four words lies the problem because ‘as each layer solidifies’ the temperature distribution between the layers causes different levels of thermal expansion that results in strains being locked into our thin plates. Our plates are too thin to build with their plane surfaces horizontal or perpendicular to the laser beam so instead we build them with their plane surface parallel to the laser beam, or vertical like a street sign. In our early attempts, the residual stresses induced by the locked-in strains caused the plate to buckle into an S-shape before it was complete (see image). We solved this problem by building buttresses at the edges of the plate. However, when we remove the buttresses and detach the plate from the build platform, it buckles into a dome-shape. Actually, you can press the centre of the plate and make it snap back and forth noisily. While we are making progress in understanding the mechanisms at work, we have some way to go before we can confidently produce flat plates using additive manufacturing that we can use in comparisons with our earlier work on the performance of conventionally, or subtractively, manufactured plates subject to the thermoacoustic loading experienced by the skin of a hypersonic vehicle [see ‘Potential dynamic buckling in hypersonic vehicle skin‘ on July 1st 2020) or the containment walls in a fusion reactor. Sometimes research is painfully slow but no one ever talks about it. Maybe because we quickly forget the painful parts once we have a successful outcome to brag about. But it is often precisely the painful repetitions of “try and try again” that allow us to reach the bragging stage of a successful outcome.