The first printed object from the first SLS prototype.

The first printed object from the first SLS prototype.

The Office of Technology Commercialization at the University of Texas is responsible for taking any scientific or biomedical discoveries made at the university and transitioning them into the marketplace. They work closely with the researchers to evaluate their work and find suitable industry partners and collaborators, and then manage the licensing or any resulting patented inventions or software. Since the 1980s UT has been one of the leading technology research and development colleges in the country, and in that time they have produced hundreds of patented discoveries and inventions. Every year the office awards faculty and students who have all helped make the world a better place with their inventions.

2015’s Inventor of the Year award was given to one of the fathers of the selective laser sintering process, Professor Joseph Beaman. Back in 1984 when Beaman was an associate profession of UT he was approached by a young undergrad student named Carl Deckard, who had an idea: What if they had a machine that could use a powerful laser to melt layers of powder together to create solid parts? Beaman saw value in the idea and agreed to work with Deckard, and even eventually took him on as a masters student later in the year. The road to developing the first working SLS prototype was a long one, and while Deckard was hard at work figuring out the best way to build it, Beaman was even harder at work making sure that they had all of the equipment that they needed.3dp_inventorOtY_Beaman_deckard

As luck would have it, Texas was in the midst of an oil bust and the state decided to shift its focus over to the rapidly growing high-tech industries and they made sure to offer plenty of funds to schools to encourage the development of new technology. Meanwhile, the UT campus was moving its engineering department to a different building and had also made funds available for new equipment. Thanks to this fortuitous timing, Beaman was able to make sure that Deckard had the laser that he needed to start his work. And he didn’t exactly do it the right way; he initially suggested to the higher ups that it was for a process to cut sheet metal because he knew that they wouldn’t support a project as radical as SLS 3D printing.

"Betsy" the first SLS machine prototype.

“Betsy” the first SLS machine prototype.

After two years of experimenting, the process had come far enough along to team up with a corporate partner–Nova Automation--and SLS would go on to become one of the most revolutionary industrial 3D printing applications in history. Something that would never of happened had Beaman not believed in his student’s idea, and fought long and hard to make it happen. Now a full Professor at UT and holder of the Earnest F. Gloyna Regents Chair in Engineering, Beaman makes sure that his students know that nothing is the result of a single inventor.

“I’ve never been the person to say I have to do it all. What I like about UT is it doesn’t have very big silos. To make this work we had to have people over at chemical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. Engineers solve problems and they solve them one by one. I always tell my students engineering is really easy, because every problem we solve isn’t that difficult. The problem is you have to solve so many, and they all have to work,” Beaman explained to UT News.

The evolution of SLS.

The evolution of SLS.

Now of course 3D printing is commonplace and found in every corner of our society. Just walking around the UT campus and its engineering complex demonstrate how ubiquitous the technology has become. The entire student body has access to 3D printing technology, either to develop prototypes, to realize digital designs and artwork or just to print up a gadget or statue. The campus is also home to the Innovation Station, the first 3D printing vending machine, located in the school’s Engineering Teaching Center.

A prosthetic leg 3D printed with SLS.

A prosthetic leg 3D printed with SLS.

While the campus has more access to other types of 3D printing technology like FDM or FFF 3D printers, it was the SLS process developed at UT that has been quietly revolutionizing the manufacturing industry. While the technology has gotten faster, more precise and capable of much higher levels of detail, the concept of building a part by using a laser to melt thin layers of materials together layer by layer remains virtually unchanged. SLS is used in dozens of applications, from 3D printing medical devices, forming fully metal parts for airplanes or race cars and even printing fixtures for the home. The process offers manufacturers something that very few other 3D printing processes can: the ability to create virtually anything faster and cheaper.

“The SLS machine is all operations in one machine, really, because essentially there’s only one operation — it’s adding stuff. We knew early on that if we could do it, it would essentially change the way people did manufacturing. What if you could take an MRI of the brain, know what the tumor shape was and automatically design the cathode delivery system that could provide just the right amount of medicine? [Put it] just where you want it to be, in the right shape, and build it that day and have it next day. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about,” Beaman continued.

Professor Beaman shows off a modern SLS machine.

Professor Beaman shows off a modern SLS machine.

Mechanical engineers are typically taught that when you design something you need to make it as simple as possible because there are limits of what machining and tooling can manufacture. But that isn’t the case anymore. According to Beaman, “If you can imagine it, we can build it.” 3D printing technology like selective laser sintering has completely changed how the next generation of engineers will learn to invent. Complexity is no longer something to avoid, but rather it’s something to embrace.

Discuss this story in the SLS 3D printing forum thread on 3DB.com. Here is some video of UT News speaking to Beaman about the invention of selective laser sintering:

The Office of Technology Commercialization at UT has previously awarded Inventor of the Year to inventors of some of the world’s most revolutionary advancements. Inventors like John Goodenough and Adam Heller who developed the modern rechargeable lithium-ion battery were honored, as well as George Georgiou and James McGinity who created a groundbreaking treatment for fighting cancer using therapeutic proteins.

 

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