X marks the spot – find ideal process parameters for your metal AM parts

Laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) is a highly versatile additive manufacturing (AM) technique for producing complex metal components direct from CAD, without expensive tooling and with minimal waste. The choice of processing parameters used to melt and solidify the metal powder is fundamental, as the thermal history of the alloy affects both its integrity and its strength. Selecting parameters that suit the material in question and the specific component to be built are critical to success, particularly in series production applications.
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This article looks at the factors that drive the selection of LPBF processing parameters, and how these define an ‘operating window’ in which we must work. We will also look at the sensitivity of the process to changes in part geometry that may drive us towards application-specific parameter choices.

LPBF overview
Laser powder bed fusion involves focusing a powerful laser beam into a small spot that contains sufficient energy intensity to fully melt a thin layer of metal powder. A pair of articulating galvanometer mirrors move the laser spot across the powder bed, melting the powder to create a track of solid metal that is securely welded to the layer below. A shielding gas flow passes across the build plate to protect the hot metal from oxidation and to remove process emissions (more of which later).

so that each successive pass of the laser partially re-melts the previous scan line, creating a solid mass of welded material.

Modulated lasers operate in a slightly different way. Here the laser is turned on and off, creating a series of exposures, with a short (10 – 20 micro-second) gap between each. Each exposure partially overlaps with the previous one. These can be formed into similar scan lines that efficiently move across the powder bed to solidify the bulk of the component.

Image above – CW laser scanning (left) involves a series of overlapping scan lines, each formed with the laser operating continuously. Modulated lasers achieve the same effect using a series of sequential exposures (right).

Process parameter basics
The way in which the laser energy is transferred into the powder bed is governed by process parameters. These define how much energy is applied and how fast. The critical parameters are:

  • Laser power: the total energy emitted by the laser per unit time
  • Spot size: diameter of the focused laser beam – this may be fixed or programmable depending on the focusing system on the machine
  • Scanning velocity: the speed at which the spot is moved across the powder bed along a scan vector – this is defined by point distance and exposure time on a modulated laser system
  • Hatch distance: the spacing between neighbouring scan vectors, which is designed to allow a certain degree of re-melting of the previous weld track to ensure full coverage of the region to be melted
  • Layer thickness: the depth of each new powder layer to be melted

If we scan too fast with too little power, then we will see regions of the part that do not fully melt, leading to ‘lack of fusion’ porosity. By contrast, if we apply too much power for the chosen speed, then we may overheat the melt pool, causing deeper energy penetration leading to an affect known as ‘keyhole formation’.

In between these two extremes lies a ‘conduction mode’ region where we will achieve good part density. Here the energy from our laser is sufficient to fully melt the powder and underlying metal without penetrating too deeply.

This picture suggests that we can increase both the power and the speed together to build faster, and to an extent this is true. However, there is a limit to how hard and fast we can go, beyond which the weld pool behaviour becomes unstable and we get a beading effect known as ‘balling up’. We also tend to see an increase in spatter formation at higher laser power.

Conduction mode zone
The central ‘conduction mode zone’ on the P-V diagram is where the right combination of speed and power generates a stable melt pool of the optimum size. It is where the laser energy is being efficiently absorbed by the powder, creating a melt pool of sufficient depth to fuse strongly with the layer below, whilst avoiding excessive re-melting.

In this processing zone, the laser recoil pressure creates a shallow cavity. The laser heats the front face of this cavity as melted powder underneath, resulting in excessive porosity and de-lamination.

Keyhole formation
When too much power is used for a given speed, then we see excess penetration of the laser into the metal under the layer of powder forming a keyhole. This deep melt cavity in the surface sees metal vapour being ejected more vertically than before. Internal reflections of the laser energy within the cavity trap more heat deeper in the material, leading to a deeper, longer-lasting melt pool. This increase in energy input will increase melt pool turbulence and spatter formation, whilst a stronger ‘weather system’ will lead to more powder entrainment.

‘Balling up’
At higher powers and speeds, the melt pool becomes unstable. High surface tension gradients lead to formation of voids behind the laser beam that expand as the laser moves on, causing the melt pool to break apart into separate islands that solidify into beads. For more details, refer to Laser Powder Bed Additive Manufacturing, Lee and Zhang.

This unstable melt pool will generate even more spatter. The high laser power will also strengthen the vapour plume and hence powder entrainment.

Solidification and microstructure
So far we have considered the melting aspects of the LPBF process and its effect on part density. It is, however, the solidification process that is most critical to establishing the performance characteristics of the metal component. Solidification defines microstructure, which in turn drives material properties.

Many alloys are complex and can exist in multiple phases at different temperatures and compositions, and so solidification does not happen all at once. Nor does it happen uniformly within a typical weld track. Cooling is most rapid where the heat can escape and most of the heat is conducted out of the melt pool and into the surrounding solid metal. Relatively little heat is lost into the neighbouring un-melted powder, or via radiation up into the chamber.

As the molten metal cools, the outer regions of the melt pool fall below the liquidus temperature, and one or more phases of the alloy will start to solidify. Cellular-dendritic crystals

Image above – columnar grain formation in ‘as-built’ nickel super-alloy processed using LPBF (left), showing elongated grains spanning multiple layers, aligned in the build direction. This material also suffers from some solidification and grain boundary cracking. Post-process heat treatment can close up such porosity, and can also modify the micro-structure to produce more equi-axed grains and more normalised material properties.

X marks the spot
So we are looking for a combination of speed and power that creates a melt pool of the optimum depth, width and duration. This means putting the optimum amount of energy into our part. When we get this right, we achieve a combination of low porosity with a microstructure that yields our desired material properties.

All three contours shown by the pink arrows in this diagram have the same energy density. For instance, if we adopt a higher power-to-velocity ratio (i.e. we choose a steeper contour that is closer to the keyhole formation zone) we can keep the energy density constant by increasing the hatch spacing. This makes sense – if we create a wider, deeper melt pool with a more penetrative laser beam, then we can afford to space them further apart whilst still fusing them to one another.

However, by doing this we will see a drop off in material properties for the reasons outlined above. By venturing close to the keyhole formation zone we are also reducing the safety factor in our process, which may limit the applicability of these parameters to certain geometries (see below for more details). So we really need to pick a hatch distance that keeps us on a central P-V contour that is well away from both the lack of fusion and keyhole formation zones.

Whilst parameters in the green zone in the diagram above should provide acceptable results, ‘X’ still marks the ideal spot. Since most of the energy from the laser beam is absorbed within the laser spot in the centre of the melt track, a hatch distance that is similar to the spot size (or approximately half the width of the melt track) is generally most effective.

Layer thickness
In the above discussion, layer thickness was fixed. What if we vary this too? If we are not too concerned with surface finish, can we increase the layer thickness to increase build rates?

The answer is yes, up to a point. Clearly, thicker layers require deeper penetration of the laser energy to ensure complete fusion to the metal below. To achieve the optimum volumetric energy input to fully melt the material, as we increase the layer thickness, we must also increase the energy input per layer. Our energy density contour therefore becomes steeper.

Increasing layer thickness pushes the ‘lack of fusion’ region on our P-V diagram upwards, narrowing the gap between it and the keyhole formation zone. The keyhole formation zone itself may not vary much with layer thickness since this

However, this change is accompanied by a loss of fidelity, an increase in melt pool size and spatter formation, and may also affect the microstructure and material properties.

Why do we need a safety factor?
The reason that we want to process in the middle of a wide operating window is that we will not always face constant thermal conditions in all regions of the build. As each new layer is added, heat is conducted down into the previously built layers below. How well this heat is dispersed will depend on the local geometry of the component and the material properties.

Where there is a good thermal connection to the substrate below, heat will dissipate effectively. By contrast, if the part geometry involves a bulky region immediately above a much thinner section, then heat will not be able to flow down so easily, resulting in more heat being retained near the top of the part. This effect is most marked in materials with a relatively low thermal conductivity, such as Ti6Al4V.

In these conditions, the substrate and the powder are pre-heated and thus require less energy input to create the same melting effect. The impact of this pre-heating on the melting process is to increase the effective energy input, increasing the gradient of the P-V contour, pushing us closer to the keyhole formation region. One possible remedy is to use simulation to identify regions of the part that are likely to overheat, and to reduce the laser energy input in these regions to offset this pre-heating effect.

Process parameter selection is critical to the success of our AM build, as it governs how the material will melt and solidify to form our component. Since each alloy powder absorbs laser energy, transmits heat, flows and solidifies in different ways, our choices must be tailored to the characteristics of the alloy that we are melting.

We must work within the capabilities of our AM machine to find an operating point in the middle of a wide operating window. This provides a safety margin to accommodate a range of local melting conditions.

Even so, some part geometries may demand modified parameters to accommodate variations in retained heat.

Borders and down-skin regions will also require different processing parameters and scanning strategies to deliver the required surface quality.

Each weld track is somewhat wider than the laser spot (by as much as 2 – 3 times the spot diameter), as the heat from the laser is conducted into the surrounding powder grains, incorporating them into the moving melt pool. Multiple melt tracks are joined together and overlapped to create a solid layer that corresponds to a slice through the component. The melt track must also be sufficiently deep to partially re-melt the layer below to form a fully-dense solid structure. In this way, the component is built up slice by slice.

Continuous wave and modulated laser melting
Two main techniques are used to melt powder – continuous and modulated scanning. Continuous wave (CW) lasers, as the name suggests, irradiate the powder under a continuous laser beam, which is moved to and fro across the surface of the powder bed to solidify the metal. The scan lines overlap, Each of these parameters can be adjusted independently, making parameter selection a multi-variable problem.

Finding the ‘operating window’
Our first concern when considering parameter choices is to achieve a consistent, fully-dense component. Part density is a key indicator of melting quality – if the part is porous it is unlikely to exhibit the strength, ductility and fatigue / creep performance that we need. But with so many parameters to play with, how do we choose the right combination?

Simplifying things helps. For any given build, the powder chemistry and particle size distribution are fixed. We are also likely to fix the layer thickness based on the resolution and surface finish that we need for our component. If we also fix the laser spot size (which cannot be varied mid-build on many machines) then we are left with power, speed and hatch distance.

The explanation below is adapted from work presented in Towards optimal processing of additive manufactured metals for high strain rate properties, Robert M. Suter, He Liu, A.D. (Tony) Rollett, presented at SSSAP Chicago, April 2017.

A helpful way to think about this is to plot our parameter choices in P-V space, plotting laser power (P) against scanning velocity (V). Our choice of parameters will affect the process outcome, as shown in this diagram.

it moves, creating a metal vapour plume that is ejected normal to the surface – i.e. upwards and backwards. The shallow cavity does not allow for internal reflections, so no additional melting occurs. Heat energy is conducted into the melt pool, which experiences a degree of turbulent flow due to the high temperature gradients within it and surface tension. This flow will result in some matter being ejected in the form of weld spatter.

The moving vapour plume creates an environment around the melt pool that is analogous to a weather system. It can entrain powder from next to the weld track, drawing it towards the laser beam through the Bernoulli effect and then ejecting it outwards. Some of this material will be heated as it passes through the laser, whilst other material is blown around by the induced gas flow in the form of ‘winds’ adjacent to the laser beam. For more details, refer to Metal vapor micro-jet controls material redistribution in laser powder bed fusion additive manufacturing, Ly et al.

Lack of fusion
If we use less power for a given speed, then the melt pool will be smaller. This means that it is likely to experience less turbulence and generate less spatter as it solidifies more rapidly. The vapour plume will also be less vigorous, and so entrainment of neighbouring powder will also be reduced.

The bad news is that now the lower laser energy may not penetrate deeply enough to fully melt the powder layer and the top surface of the solid metal below. This leaves un-

Where the keyhole becomes unstable (affected by power, scan velocity and melt pool dynamics) the melt pool can collapse in on the cavity to form a pore of inert gas at the base. Such pores may not close up as the melt pool solidifies, generating sub-surface porosity in the welded metal. A greater degree of re-melting of the layers below will also occur, affecting the microstructure of the solidified material.

Experimental evidence from NIST illustrates the impact of parameter choices on melt pool size (see image below). Measuring an Inconel melt pool from above using an infrared camera, they observed that the melt pool length is roughly constant for different scanning speeds at the same laser power. However, the melt pool width, and hence the area, increases as the speed reduces. In this case, at 200W laser power, the length of the melt pool is approx 0.6 mm at speeds varying from 200 mm/sec to 800 mm/sec. The wider (and thus deeper) melt pool created at slower scan speeds contains more thermal energy and so takes longer to solidify – up to 3 ms in the most extreme case below.

Image above – experimental measurement of melt pool dimensions in Inconel 625 at various locations in P-V space. The power and speed combinations at the top left of the diagram (most notably case 5) fall into the shaded ‘key-holing’ zone. Ref: MSEC2017-2942 Measurement of the melt pool length during single scan tracks in a commercial laser powder bed fusion process, J.C. Heigel, B.M. Lane

form at the outer edge of the melt pool, growing in towards the centre. The remaining liquid phases are trapped between these primary dendrites, only solidifying once their lower melting points are reached. Opposing cellular-dendritic growth fronts form the individual grain boundaries where the remaining liquid phase can also accumulate..

The cooling process places strains on these cellular and grain boundary regions, which can result in unwelcome porosity through a process known as ‘hot tearing’ or solidification cracking in some materials. This is worst where there is a large difference between the temperatures at which the different phases solidify.

As we can see, the size, duration and cooling rate of the melt pool is important, as it governs the thermal history of the material. A longer-lasting melt pool that cools more slowly will produce a coarser microstructure, with larger grains and thicker dendrites. By contrast, smaller melt pools will cool more rapidly, creating a finer microstructure.

A deeper melt pool will also cause more re-melting of the previously-solidified metal, affecting its microstructure too. Higher laser power correlates with formation of longer columnar vertical grains, each spanning multiple layers. Since a deeper melt pool has a larger contact area with the solid metal below, more heat is conducted downwards, increasing the vertical alignment of grains. This can result in a greater difference between mechanical properties in directions perpendicular to and parallel with the build direction.

One way to think about this is in terms of ‘energy density’ – the amount of energy that we apply to the material per unit volume. For a constant energy density, laser power and scanning velocity are inversely related to one another, so in P-V space energy density contours radiate from the origin, with the density being related to the gradient of the contour.

For our chosen material and layer thickness, there will be an optimum energy density at which it will process most efficiently and deliver the microstructure that we are looking for. When choosing our process parameters, we want to be as far along this contour as we can reach with the laser and focusing optics that we have available on our AM machine, without venturing too far towards the ‘balling up’ region. This will give us the best material properties, combined with the best productivity. In the diagram above, ‘X’ marks the spot.

Hatch distance

The analysis shown above is missing one crucial factor: the hatch distance. Our graph assumes that the hatch distance is fixed, so that energy density is governed only by laser power and scan velocity.Of course, hatch distance can be varied independently of power and speed, and it also affects the energy density. It is therefore possible to maintain the same energy density along a range of P-V contours by varying the hatch distance. We can put the same total amount of energy into the layer in many different ways.

behaviour is governed by the intensity and speed of the laser spot and how this interacts with the particular material.

The operating window is therefore closing, and eventually we reach a layer thickness where we cannot penetrate deep enough whilst maintaining a stable melt pool and sufficient fusion to the metal below.

The practical layer thickness that gives us a reasonable operating window varies by material, but generally falls in the range of 30 to 90 microns for laser spots of 70 to 100 microns in diameter.

Thicker layers can be accommodated by increasing the spot size to reduce the spot intensity at higher laser powers.

Nominal & specific parameter sets
So far, we have concentrated on finding the ideal bulk processing parameters for a material, enabling us to produce good metal as quickly as we can. But a working parameter set requires more than just one setting, as we encounter different melting and cooling conditions in different regions of our component. To deliver functional parts, we need to complement our bulk parameters with specialised settings for the various geometries that we are producing.

Every component will comprise both bulk regions and surfaces orientated in various directions. In the bulk regions we want high density, rapid build and good material properties. Our priorities for borders will be different – surface finish may be our biggest concern, or it may be suppression of surface defects that could lead to damage during post-processing. Down-skin surfaces typically cool more slowly as they lack a solid substrate below, and here we are trying to avoid distortion and dross.

We typically deploy quite different parameters in these regions, and so even nominal parameter sets include a range of settings and scan strategies for different regions of the part. To achieve the optimum quality in all regions of the part, it may be necessary to develop more application-specific parameters.

Next steps
Renishaw AM systems are available with open parameters, enabling users to optimise their processing parameters to suit their applications.

QuantAM build preparation software provides a material development module with .CSV data import for process parameter development arrays.

Material parameter development services and advanced parameter development training are available through Renishaw’s global network of AM Solutions Centres.


About the author

Marc Saunders

Marc Saunders

Marc Saunders is the Director - Global Solutions Centres at Renishaw. Establishing a global network of Additive Manufacturing Solutions Centres, helping customers to deploy Renishaw's innovative 3D printing technology (laser powder-bed fusion) to produce complex and/or unique, fully-dense metal components. The Solutions Centres offer both part production and 'incubator cells' for process development, combining Renishaw's expertise in additive manufacturing, precision machining and metrology. P&L responsible for additive manufacturing services and supply of qualified materials to users of Renishaw’s additive manufacturing machines.