Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) Explained

Curious about WAAM (Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing)? See how this technology works, when to use it over LPBF, and more.

Welcome to the Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing world, or WAAM for short. This 3D printing technology is gaining traction in manufacturing, and for good reason. The process is fast, accurate, and capable of precisely producing large objects.

How large, you ask? This technology creates everything from enormous crane hooks to entire bridges in Amsterdam. However, WAAM is also helpful on a much smaller scale.

This article will explore the WAAM process, including the materials and steps involved. You’ll learn the advantages and drawbacks of WAAM and its applications in various industries. One crucial section highlights when to use Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing vs. Laser Powder Bed Fusion for your additive manufacturing project.

What is WAAM?

The Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing process is similar to traditional welding, where the metal wire is melted and added to the base material to form a joint.

However, WAAM is automated and controlled by a computer program and performed by a robot arm to build complex geometries. This manufacturing technology uses an electric arc to melt a metal wire, which is then deposited layer by layer to create a 3D object.

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Popular Materials 

The materials used in WAAM depend on the application and the properties required for the final object. Some of the commonly used materials include:

Steel: Steel is a popular choice for WAAM due to its strength and durability. It is commonly used in the aerospace and automotive industries to produce structural components.

Titanium: Titanium is a lightweight, vital, and corrosion-resistant metal often used in the aerospace and biomedical industries.

Aluminum: Aluminum is a light and robust material for producing components that require high strength and durability.

Copper: Copper is used in the electrical and electronics industry to produce parts requiring good electrical conductivity.

In addition to these metals, WAAM can also use metal alloys and composites – such as nickel alloys – which can provide unique properties such as high strength-to-weight ratios and corrosion resistance.

This 3D-printed bridge in Amsterdam was made with stainless steel. Amsterdam: 3D Printed Bridge by harry_nl is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Applications of WAAM

WAAM has various applications in various industries.

Aerospace: WAAM is used in the aerospace industry to produce structural components such as wings, fuselage sections, and engine parts. It can produce large, complex components with high precision, reducing the need for assembly and welding. WAAM can also repair and refurbish aircraft components, saving time and costs.

Automotive: WAAM is used in the automotive industry to produce engine parts, exhaust systems, and other components that require high strength and durability. BMW believes in the technology, having invested in a WAAM machine for its Additive Manufacturing Campus in Munich.

Energy: WAAM has helped prevent supply chain struggles by making replacement parts for oil refineries. The technology can also produce components for wind turbines.

Art: With WAAM capable of massive parts, many artists have used this technology for eye-catching installations.

Automotive: WAAM is used in the automotive industry to produce engine parts, exhaust systems, and other components that require high strength and durability. BMW recently invested in a WAAM machine.

Other Industries: The energy, defense, and construction industries also use WAAM for various applications, such as ships. Recently, the US Navy invested in the technology to create components for its submarines.

4 Steps to Create Parts

The WAAM process involves several steps, which are as follows:

1. Design:

The first step in the WAAM process is designing the 3D object. The object is designed using computer-aided design (CAD) software, which generates a digital part model. The digital model is then converted into a machine-readable format for the WAAM system. The part is sliced into many layers, and a toolpath for the robot arm is created.

If you’re using the MakerVerse platform, this is the only step you need to worry about—we take care of the rest with our fully vetted supply chain to ensure the quality of your part.

2. Preparation:

Next, the base material and the wire are prepared. The base material is cleaned and prepared for welding, and the wire is loaded into the wire feeder system. The welding torch is also ready, while the robot or CNC machine is programmed to follow the pre-determined path.

3. Printing:

Now, production can begin. The welding torch is moved along the pre-determined path, and an electric arc melts the wire to fuse it to the base material. The process is repeated layer by layer until the final object is complete.

4. Post-Processing:

We’re still going. The object is removed from the WAAM system and undergoes various post-processing steps, such as cleaning, heat treatment, and finishing. The post-processing steps depend on the application and the desired properties of the final object.

Advantages and Disadvantages of WAAM

WAAM offers several advantages over traditional manufacturing methods, which include:

1. Cost-Effective:

WAAM is a cost-effective method for producing large, complex objects. WAAM can reduce the cost of material and labor and the need for assembly and manual welding.

2. Time-Saving:

WAAM can save time in the production process by producing complex objects in a single step. It can also reduce the time required for post-processing, as it can create objects with near-net shapes.

3. Customizable:

WAAM can produce exact and accurate customized objects with specific properties such as strength, corrosion resistance, and electrical conductivity.

4. Environmentally Friendly:

WAAM can reduce waste and energy consumption. WAAM can also use recycled materials, which can reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing.

Despite its advantages, there are some drawbacks:

1. Accuracy:

Wide tolerances and the need for final machining to get functional surfaces

2. Limited Material Options:

WAAM can only use materials compatible with the welding process, which can be limiting.

3. Surface Roughness:

Parts have a rough surface finish, which may require additional post-processing steps such as polishing and sanding.

4. Skill Requirements:

WAAM requires skilled operators trained in welding and programming. The process is complex and requires a high level of expertise to ensure the quality and accuracy of the final object. Fortunately, MakerVerse has the expertise to provide the industrial quality of your part.

WAAM vs. Laser Powder Bed Fusion

The most established metal additive manufacturing technology is Laser Powder Bed Fusion. This technology uses an inert gas atmosphere and a laser whose thermal energy melts metal powder stored in a powder bed. As this happens repetitively layer by layer, the material is fused.

There are some clear cases when to use one technology over the other:

Oversized parts: WAAM

WAAM is capable of enormous parts. Earlier, we mentioned how an entire bridge was made with this technology. Through MakerVerse, LPBF parts of up to 65 cm are possible. While that’s enough for many applications, WAAM is the technology of choice for more significant parts.

Precision and Accuracy: LPBF

WAAM might be able to go bigger, but LPBF is capable of higher precision and accuracy. Depending on the materials, an accuracy of +/- 0.3 mm is achievable with a minimum wall thickness of 0.8 mm. WAAM’s mWAAM’s wall thickness is 4 mm with a resolution of 1 mm.

Cost: WAAM (Usually)

The cost depends on the application and production requirements. However, WAAM can be cheaper because it can print at high deposition rates. For parts requiring the most precision and accuracy, LPBF may be more cost-effective. In any case, it’s essential to carefully evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of each process and determine which is most suitable for the specific project at hand.

Surface Finish: LPBF

LPBF produces parts with a high-quality surface finish, which helps cut down on post-processing.

A variety of parts are made with LPBF.

Getting Started with WAAM

Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) is cost-effective for producing large, complex objects. It can also produce customized objects with decent precision and accuracy, making it a valuable method for various applications.

This technology opens up new possibilities for producing large, complex objects. We expect the technology to continue evolving, making it even more widely adopted.