is a metal forming process that forms thin parts through the electroplating
Electroplating is a plating process in which metal ions in a solution are moved by an electric field to coat an electrode. The process uses electrical current to reduce cations of a desired material from a solution and coat a conductive object with a thin layer of the material, such as a metal...
process. The part is produced by plating
Plating is a surface covering in which a metal is deposited on a conductive surface. Plating has been done for hundreds of years, but it is also critical for modern technology...
a metal skin onto a base form, known as a mandrel
A mandrel is one of the following:* an object used to shape machined work.* a tool component that grips or clamps materials to be machined.* a tool component that can be used to grip other moving tool components.- Variants :...
, which is removed after plating. This process differs from electroplating in that the plating is much thicker and can exist as a self-supporting structure when the mandrel is removed.
In recent years, due to its ability to replicate a mandrel surface precisely atom-by-atom with practically no loss of fidelity, electroforming has taken on new importance in the fabrication of micro and nano scale metallic devices and in producing precision injection molds with micro and nano scale feature for production of nonmetallic micromolded objects.
In the basic electroforming process, an electrolytic bath is used to deposit nickel or other electroplatable metal onto a conductive patterned surface, such as glass or stainless steel. Once the plated material has been built up to the desired thickness, the electroformed part is stripped off the master substrate. This process allows high-quality duplication of the master and therefore permits quality production—at low unit costs with high repeatability and excellent process control.
The mandrel is made of a non-conductive material it can be covered with a conductive coating
Coating is a covering that is applied to the surface of an object, usually referred to as the substrate. In many cases coatings are applied to improve surface properties of the substrate, such as appearance, adhesion, wetability, corrosion resistance, wear resistance, and scratch resistance...
. Technically, it is a process of synthesizing a metal object by controlling the electrodeposition of metal passing through an electrolytic solution onto a metal or metalized form.
The object being electroformed can be a permanent part of the end product or can be temporary (as in the case of wax), and removed later, leaving only the metal form, the “electroform”. New technologies have made it possible for mandrels to be very complex. In order to facilitate the removal of the electroform from the mandrel, a mandrel is often made of aluminum. Because aluminum can easily be chemically dissolved, a complex electroform can be produced with near exactness.
Advantages and disadvantages
The main advantage of electroforming is that it reproduces the external shape of the mandrel within one micrometre. Generally, forming an internal cavity accurately is more difficult than forming an external shape, however the opposite holds true for electroforming because the mandrel's exterior can be accurately machined.
Compared to other basic metal forming processes (casting
In metalworking, casting involves pouring liquid metal into a mold, which contains a hollow cavity of the desired shape, and then allowing it to cool and solidify. The solidified part is also known as a casting, which is ejected or broken out of the mold to complete the process...
Forging is a manufacturing process involving the shaping of metal using localized compressive forces. Forging is often classified according to the temperature at which it is performed: '"cold," "warm," or "hot" forging. Forged parts can range in weight from less than a kilogram to 580 metric tons...
Stamping includes a variety of sheet-metal forming manufacturing processes, such as punching using a machine press or stamping press, blanking, embossing, bending, flanging, and coining. This could be a single stage operation where every stroke of the press produce the desired form on the sheet...
, deep drawing
Drawing is a metalworking process which uses tensile forces to stretch metal. It is broken up into two types: sheet metal drawing and wire, bar, and tube drawing. The specific definition for sheet metal drawing is that it involves plastic deformation over a curved axis...
Conventional machining is a form of subtractive manufacturing, in which a collection of material-working processes utilizing power-driven machine tools, such as saws, lathes, milling machines, and drill presses, are used with a sharp cutting tool to physical remove material to achieve a desired...
Fabrication as an industrial term refers to building metal structures by cutting, bending, and assembling. The cutting part of fabrication is via sawing, shearing, or chiseling ; torching with handheld torches ; and via CNC cutters...
) electroforming is very effective when requirements call for extreme tolerances, complexity or light weight. The precision and resolution inherent in the photographically produced conductive patterned substrate, allows finer geometries to be produced to tighter tolerances while maintaining superior edge definition with a near optical finish. Electroformed metal is extremely pure, with superior properties over wrought metal due to its refined crystal structure. Multiple layers of electroformed metal can be molecularly bonded together, or to different substrate materials to produce complex structures with "grown-on" flanges and bosses.
Tolerances of 1.5 to 3 nanometres have been reported.
A wide variety of shapes and sizes can be made by electroforming, the principal limitation being the need to strip the product from the mandrel. Since the fabrication of a product requires only a single pattern or mandrel, low production quantities can be made economically.