News | Oct 24, 2019

Manufacturing tungsten carbide is hard. So the Army Research Lab figured out how to 3D print it.

Useful for ultra-hard cutting tools, abrasives, and armor-piercing projectiles

Using powder bed fusion, an additive manufacturing technique, Army researchers are discovering new methods and materials to build metal components with commercial and military applications.

David McNally/Army

To reduce the manufacturing costs of making tungsten carbide tools, a team of researchers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory has figured out how to 3D print it into the exact size and shape they want, with little to no post-machining required, according to a U.S. patent application first made public on Thursday.

Tungsten carbide is hard, so hard that it’s expensive to make it into useful tools and shapes. The current manufacturing process takes five steps, the last being grinding for quality control.

Tungsten carbide is nearly twice as hard and twice as dense as steel, and when you shoot it into hard targets it penetrates, which is why the U.S. Army likes it for armor-piercing bullets (it’s currently used in the M993 ammunition, a 7.62×51mm NATO armor-piercing round), but it also makes awesome drill bits for mining, surgical cutlery, and industrial grinders.

“Due to the high hardness of (tungsten carbide), machining of the densified material is very time and cost-intensive,” the Army states in the patent application. “Also, the subtractive nature of the machining process limits the complexity of part shapes.”

The Army’s patent-pending tungsten carbide additive manufacturing process builds on a technique called powder bed fusion with selective laser melting. Machines that can perform this process are commercially available.

Click the document image to access the U.S. Army’s patent application.

But in contrast to other efforts, the Army research team is experimenting with different binder materials, in hopes of finding a replacement for cobalt, which is expensive and carcinogenic, according to the National Toxicology Program.

In a proof-of-concept study, the Army research team produced tungsten carbide test shapes using an iron-nickel-zirconium binder with four, commercially available tungsten carbide powder particle sizes, and analyzed them for micro-cracks using optical and scanning electron microscopes.

“Even with the relatively low binder content, most of the samples possessed structural integrity, with theoretical skeletal densities as high as 95% with macroscale open porosity, they wrote in their research paper published by Additive Manufacturing of Composites and Complex Materials. (Access the full journal article below.)

“Although the starting particle size was submicron, there were grains in the SLM-processed sample that had grown to several microns in size. These large grains were typically present in pocketed regions of the sample, while other areas exhibited more ‘ideal’ microstructures, suggesting that further refinement of this technique could prove to be a suitable manufacturing method of cemented (tungsten carbide).”

With the patent application now public, U.S. businesses can pursue patent licensing agreements with the Army, which allows private parties to leverage the Army’s research and development efforts to boost their business.

As the Army’s national partnership intermediary for technology transfer, TechLink is facilitating technical review and license applications for U.S. firms interested in the technology and intellectual property.

Dr. Brian Metzger, senior technology manager at TechLink, is in contact with the Army Research Laboratory and regularly reviews their technology for dual-use applications.

“This is prime for several markets in addition to the military application, Metzger said. “There’s obviously value in getting rid of the cobalt with the new binder, value in eliminating steps in the current manufacturing process, and also value in licensing the IP that protects the additive manufacturing technique.”


Businesses interested in evaluating the technology and licensing it for commercialization can contact Dr. Brian Metzger at brian.metzger@montana.edu or 406-994-7782.