Why is the inside of the bone built the way it is? Why does every tree grow differently, and why is every trunk different? Over billions of years, nature has become a true master when it comes to developing resource-efficient and maximally functional survival concepts. The inner spongy or lamellar structure of bone tissue significantly stiffens the outer structure and stabilizes the bone. The growth of trees, in turn, is flow-optimized, i.e.: adapted to the forces acting on the tree trunk.

In the scientific field of bionics and lightweight construction, technology is attempting to transfer more and more of these natural phenomena to technical components and applications. Topology optimization plays a major role in lightweight construction technologies. This refers to the optimization of a component in terms of its functionality, weight or performance and efficiency. Since such design concepts are often reflected in very complex structures and geometries, there has been a lack of options for manufacturing such component geometries as simply and cost-effectively as possible. Additive manufacturing now promises to remedy this situation.

What does topology optimization mean?

Topological optimization of components is a software-supported procedure in which load and effective forces acting on a component are analyzed. Before the algorithmic analysis, an engineer defines the aspects and tasks on the basis of which a component is to be examined. Examples are: mechanical load forces, thermal stresses or resonance, the vibration capacity of a component. Based on the data, the software generates design-specific component geometries that are adapted to the corresponding loads. Material is only added to the component designed in this way where it is absolutely necessary, so that it can fulfill its tasks in the best possible way and achieve an optimum degree of effectiveness and efficiency.

Such topology-optimized geometries are often characterized by particularly complex structures. This means that they can only be produced using conventional manufacturing methods such as milling or turning – if at all – with enormous effort. For this reason, topology optimization and additive manufacturing or 3D printing are a perfect combination. This is because 3D printing works without geometric limits and is therefore one of the few technologies that are ideally suited for the production of topology-optimized components.

How does topology optimization work in the context of 3D printing?

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing can be used to produce components with topology-optimized and thus highly complex structures and designs in a wide variety of materials. For example, it is possible to print components directly in metal or plastic or to produce sand molds for metal casting using indirect processes such as 3D printing.

All that is needed for additive manufacturing is a digital CAD file. This is built up from powder materials in a layer-based manner by most additive manufacturing processes. Lasers, print heads or melting nozzles are used. Depending on the process, however, complex post-processing and certification processes can limit the widespread use of topology-optimized components. However, via 3D printing of sand molds for metal casting, geometries of equivalent complexity can be realized. As casting is an already certified manufacturing process, it is ideally suited for the implementation of such optimization projects.

What are the advantages of topology optimization for lightweight design and bionics?

Bionics refers to an interdisciplinary field of science that is primarily concerned with transferring the constructive phenomena that occur in nature to man-made technology. This does not always have to involve load-bearing paths or effective currents. Typical examples of bionics are the lotus flower effect or the Velcro fastener. The structure and surface properties of the lotus flower ensure that it is highly liquid-repellent. This effect is used in industry, for example, in facade design or boat hulls. The Velcro fastener, as the name suggests, is derived from the principle of the burdock and can be found today not only on shoes, but everywhere in everyday life.

If the aim of bionics and design is to optimize the design of a component in terms of its material consumption and function, this is referred to as lightweight construction. The results of such bionics or lightweight construction projects are often reminiscent of bionic structures with the structures and designs generated, i.e. they are similar to the construction plans of a natural phenomenon.

How does voxeljet implement topology optimization?

When it comes to topology optimization, we rely on our highly productive binder jetting technology, in which we produce molds and models for sand and investment casting from sand or plastic. In this process, we bond fine sands and plastics layer by layer to produce the desired geometries either as a negative mold or as a positive model. The printed molds can then be integrated into existing casting processes in the foundry.

Sand 3D printing has the advantage that it can be used to produce component sizes of up to 4 x 2 x 1 meters. Plastic 3D printing is particularly suitable when highly filigree and precise structures are required.

Which industries benefit from topology optimization?

Particularly with regard to the issue of sustainability and reduction of CO2 emissions, bionics plays a major role in design. Every industry that requires fuel, wherever it saves materials through reduced weight, also reduces fuel consumption and thus emissions. For this reason, the automotive and aerospace industries in particular are looking at lightweighting, bionics and topology optimization. In addition to the material savings, these industries also benefit from functional optimization such as increased stability and strength of components, for example to better protect vehicle occupants or to extend the service life of vehicles and aircraft.

In the meantime, there are also more and more applications for topological optimization outside the automotive and aerospace industries. For example, shoe soles can also be optimized in terms of their topology in order to produce a shoe sole adapted to an individual load profile. With the continuous increase in the productivity of additive manufacturing systems and the increased possibilities of automating such production lines, it will also be possible in the future to manufacture highly individualized and topology-optimized products in batch sizes.

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