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Automated analysis of 3D-printed components for the aerospace industry

Interview with Reinhold Matthes, materials tester for quality management at Liebherr-Aerospace Lindenberg GmbH, describing his experience with the DM12000 M inspection system from Leica

Manufacturers in the aerospace industry are always looking for new and innovative production methods for components of all kinds. The requirements are also getting more complex along the way. The parts have to meet demanding shape and weight specifications while also allowing for fast, reliable production. Therefore 3D printing, more specifically, laser sintering (LS) or melting (LM), has been used and tested increasingly over the last few years. The results from 3D printing open new possibilities in the aerospace industry. Simultaneously this new production method brings up new questions related to the quality of printed components.

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Interview with Reinhold Matthes, materials tester for quality management

Reinhold Matthes, materials tester for quality management at Liebherr-Aerospace Lindenberg GmbH, describes how the DM12000 M inspection microscope has been set up specifically for pore analysis of 3D-printed metal components to enable faster quality assessment.

Liebherr-Aerospace develops, manufactures, and services aircraft flight control and actuation systems, landing gear, air management systems, on-board electronics, as well as gears and gearboxes, for the aerospace industry. Liebherr-Aerospace is constantly investing in research and development (R&D) to develop new solutions for the next generation of aircraft.

Could you explain what analyses your team performs with the DM12000 M to determine the quality of 3D-printed components?

Reinhold Matthes: We use the microscope for automated pore analysis of samples that were made using laser sintering. This inspection system in particular is used to analyze components made of titanium. 

How does automated pore analysis work exactly?

Reinhold Matthes: Up to six samples are positioned, then the employee running the check selects the areas to be scanned on the samples in the screen overview on the computer. The software then automatically starts capturing a series of images which are then subsequently analyzed.

This method is simple but effective. The microscope automatically distinguishes between light and dark areas on the sample. The analysis is then based on observation of the respective surface ratio and the pore size distribution.

To help us accomplish the automated pore analysis, Christoph Frank, a Leica application expert, programmed special macros that set our exact measurement specifications.

Our employees then check the report. The gray-scale value in the background is used as a control reference. This value allows us to quickly and easily determine if the microscope configuration differs from the standard. If there are unusual values, then we inspect the measurement specifications of the microscope accordingly. This approach allows us to work accurately and efficiently.

Can you describe in detail how the automated analysis with the DM12000 M contributes to more efficient workflows?

Reinhold Matthes: In the past, we outsourced this kind of sample analysis. Sometimes it took several weeks until we got the results back. That caused a significant delay in the development of the process parameters for the 3D printer.

The Leica automated analysis allows us to reduce the duration of the quality inspection immensely. Now we need just three to five hours to go from sample preparation to measurement results.

In the end, it is all about faster throughput in production and efficiency in quality control.

Another advantage of the automated analysis is the reduction of human errors. The system enables very specific measurements because all of the default values for the measurement configuration, as well as the microscope and camera settings, are automatically recorded in the report. That helps us to standardize procedures and ensure equality of imaging parameters.

What criteria do you believe are especially important when purchasing a microscope system? 

Reinhold Matthes: The software is one of the most important criteria for making the decision whether to buy or not. It should allow for intuitive operation, so that users can become familiar with the system quickly and find it easy to use. Otherwise, there is a greater chance of  user errors, such as forgetting work steps. Thanks to the macros programmed by Christoph Frank, a Leica application expert, it was possible to set up the user interface easily and in line with our requirements. The corresponding buttons for the key functions are clearly distinguished.

If you could put together a microscope for the future, what functions would it need to have to make your work even more efficient?

Reinhold Matthes: The goal is to automate routine work more and more, so that employees can dedicate their time to doing more advanced analyses. It would be ideal if the sample inspection could run entirely by itself. This goal would require the software to detect the sample automatically, bring it into focus, and perform the analyses directly on the live image. Of course, the final report would include all that information.