The Changing Landscape of Additive Manufacturing Materials: Academia Looks Ahead

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Metal powders for additive manufacturing showcased at America Makes

The additive manufacturing industry is changing so quickly that sometimes it seems that if you blink you’ll miss at least three major developments. Fortunately, those working at the forefront of the latest advances in 3D printing are also working to share their efforts through regular events set out for the industry. While I love the high production value on the exhibit floor we see at major tradeshows like RAPID + TCT, smaller events geared toward industry participants allow for a more in-depth dive into information. Yesterday, SME — the organization behind RAPID — partnered with America Makes to gather industry and academia together in a one-day event as part of their Smart Manufacturing seminar series, as the Changing Landscape of Additive Manufacturing Materials was in focus in Youngstown, Ohio.

While the first half of the day’s presentations highlighted today’s realities in industrial 3D printing, with speakers touching on current applications for and challenges in additive manufacturing, the latter portion of the agenda was geared more toward the future.

Research presented in this portion of the day included work adding the dimension of time to 3D printing, R&D in geometrically complex fibers and feedstocks, an exploration of pain points in smart manufacturing, a look at expanding the design space in additive manufacturing through work with multi-material solutions, focusing on process control in work on metal materials for additive manufacturing, and advances in polymeric materials for 3D printing.

An interesting point regarding some of this work arose during Dr. Eric Wetzel’s session as he discussed work being done at the US Army Research Laboratory:

At the US Army Lab we’re great at researching and writing scientific papers,” he said, “but we don’t commercialize, we don’t take it to the finish line. We’re always open to talking to more industry collaborators.”

Dr. Eric Wetzel

While the gap between academic research and industry commercialization has often been referred to as a ‘valley of death’ that it can be quite difficult for new technology to bridge, events that bring the industry together are often a bastion of collaboration. By sharing the work being done — in Dr. Wetzel’s case, in a presentation entitled “Geometrically Complex Fibers and Feedstocks via Thermal Drawing of an Additively Manufactured Thermoplastic Preform” based on a recently published paper — researchers gain access to potential partners who might be able to take their R&D to the next level. Finding the right partner is a critical step in any new technology venture, and is an especially careful consideration when it comes to exacting parameters and precise process controls required in such industries as additive manufacturing.

While a benefit of work within the confines of academia is that intellectual curiosity can be assuaged, with researchers more free to explore ideas simply to see if they might be possible, this can sometimes mean that interesting developments ultimately go undeveloped. Networking and developing relationships with organizations with the capability to take promising, if largely conceptual, work down a path toward commercialization can benefit both the work’s initiators and the industry where it can be used. Putting out a call at events such as this one following a presentation of theoretical and proven research can open the door to partners who have been in search of the next development to move their own efforts forward.

Looking ahead, though, through the academics’ presentations, does also present an enticing glimpse of the future for 3D printing. Dr. H. Jerry Qi of Georgia Tech detailed some of the work his team has been doing in exploring 4D printing, engaging the audience with a brief video of a part moving, inchworm-style, forward, with a vision of a future in which completed parts could crawl themselves off the bed of a 3D printer. While a fun example (and imagine: no more scraping the print bed!), Dr. Qi also pointed to real-world potential uses for such developments, and noted work his team has been working on in polymer development and multi-material multi-method 3D printing.

Dr. H. Jerry Qi

We also heard from Youngstown State University‘s Dr. Brett Conner, who discussed multi-material solutions for additive manufacturing that address limitations of conventional processes.

“Each conventional method has limitations associated, what I wanted was the freedom to put the material I wanted where I wanted it,” Dr. Conner said, noting that his team looked into multi-material additive manufacturing architecture on the voxel level.

I needed to think differently, I needed to think in terms of the voxel.”

Dr. Brett Conner

Working with realizable applications in ceramics for fuel cells, extrusion-based 3D printing for satellite electronics, and even a case in which multi-material AM solutions were put to use in the creation of a custom brace for an ailing dog, Dr. Conner and his team at YSU have been keeping in mind uses outside a laboratory setting. That he touched on the need to think differently for 3D printing highlights the importance of a targeted mindset for design for additive manufacturing, extending to materials development.

Also examining the difference in mindset that additive manufacturing requires for materials was Dr. Chris Williams of Virginia Tech, who moved away from multi-material and metal developments into an older-school material family seeing renewed development for AM: polymers.

Just as our products must be redesigned for effective use of AM, so must our materials,” Dr. Williams said.

Dr. Chris Williams

The polymers familiar today in industry have been in use for decades but, he explained, the polymers of the 1950s were designed for other processes. Just as metals companies are seeing — with SLM Solutions’ Scott Hill speaking just prior to Dr. Williams and touching on some of the concerns in metal powders — materials need an overhaul for use in different manufacturing technologies. While the metals segment is fast-growing and the center of a great deal of attention lately, polymer applications in 3D printing have been around longer, presenting both a blessing and a curse. Invoking the notorious Yoda head model (“It’s always Yoda”), Dr. Williams noted:

This is the best thing and the worst thing that’s happened to our industry; it makes people think, ‘hey this [3D printing] is approachable,’ and really make that connection. The bad thing is that a couple years later, people think this is all we can do.”

Materials work being done in research labs is laying an important groundwork for many of the next developments in industry. Sharing R&D efforts and establishing collaborations to eventually commercialize research will continue to be a way for additive manufacturing to grow into a more applicable, realizable future.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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