3D Printing: Inside MIT


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It’s almost impossible to discuss advances in 3D printing today, particularly in Boston, without mention of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as the school not only produces well-educated engineers but also delves deep itself into additive manufacturing research. During my time in Boston last week, I enjoyed the opportunity to visit the esteemed campus that has given rise to trained engineers who have gone on to found local 3D printing companies with a global presence — both Formlabs and Markforged arose from and are largely staffed by MIT engineering graduates, for example — to see for myself a quick inside glimpse at MIT’s 3D printing operations.

While MIT is engaged with 3D printing research through various activities and departments, and keeps an eye on business operations through its esteemed Technology Review, Professor John Hart’s lab is a known epicenter of activity, and it was here that I headed. I met with Haden Quinlan, Program Manager, Center for Additive and Digital Advanced Production Technologies (ADAPT), and Professor Hart’s assistant, to discuss some of the happenings at MIT and to see the facilities.

Professor Hart’s lab started work with additive manufacturing with a look to carbon nanomaterials, Quinlan noted, including a patent issued around 2007 and early work including a nanoscale creation of then-President Obama and then-VP Biden. Over the last four or five years, work has become more involved with additive manufacturing, encompassing machines, materials, and processes.

Left to right: John Hart, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Director, Lab for Manufacturing and Productivity; Haden Quinlan, Program Manager, ADAPT; Sebastian Pattinson, Postdoctoral Fellow, NSF-SEES Fellow; Adam Stevens, Graduate Student, MechE; Greg Dreifus, Graduate Student, MechE

We discussed several areas of research at the lab, including an FFF 3D printing technique shown to be ten times better than the industry average, an SLM test bed examining process control in instrumentation, and work in conformal SLA. In the pipeline are additional projects that, Quinlan noted, will offer further techniques for better process understanding and machine learning. We’ll look forward to hearing more about these areas of research once they are published.

“It’s not just hardware, but processes, and supply chain mechanics,” he told me. “We’re looking at more robust cost models for additive manufacturing that capture the complexities of the digital thread, a more robust understanding of powder recyclability, and more. We want to elevate the conversation from simple cost model to actionable.”

With that goal of actionable research in mind, Quinlan noted that there’s a broad portfolio of work being looked into at MIT these days; “pretty much everything but consumer,” he said. Indeed, while many desktop 3D printers were in each lab space we walked through, it’s clear that we’re well beyond the days where these machines would be looked at as consumer-level hardware.

“‘Rapid prototyping’ doesn’t describe it anymore. We’re getting to the stage where we’re hitting critical mass with industry, where interest is reaching the point for tipping into production,” he continued.

As more and more manufacturers are turning to 3D printing for applications beyond prototyping — not just in end-use parts themselves, but in tooling, jigs, and fixtures used in final part production — it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture of progress. While the vision is increasingly there among producers, the newness of the technology underlies an increasingly oft-explored lag in its adoption: the lack of a skilled talent pool to design for additive manufacture (DfAM).

“‘Skills gap’ is trendy to say, but there really is one,” Quinlan told me. “How do I best design for AM? There are more collaborative tools available now, but we need the educational material to bring folk up to date with these things.”

To that end, MIT is enhancing its efforts in educating for additive manufacturing, and we can expect to see more courses surface within the intermediate-term future. An upcoming online course for AM, developed in tandem with a “very large partner that has been using additive manufacturing for a long time” is being created in response to the rapidity with which technology is moving and the increase in industrial interest.

“We want to elevate the conversation from one-off webinars, and really get into fundamentals, variables, and limits, through a fundamental understanding that we need more tools available for an increasingly agile workforce,” Quinlan said.

MIT certainly has the understanding to create additional coursework, and has seen some success in existing offerings to educate. We’ve talked previously with Hart and other MIT professors about AM course offerings, and future educational opportunities are being created in response to interest not only on campus but around the world in DfAM and other 3D printing-related topics.

“We have the most technically robust additive education offering available now, and need to take that and spread it to the world,” Quinlan told me. “We hope this will do substantial good in advancing industry.”

Not 3D printed, but a nice bit of MIT campus art across the street from Building 35

Last year, MIT ran a massive open online course (MOOC) and saw significant interest in the offering arise around the world, substantiating the idea that 3D printing is taking hold globally — and that the skills are needed everywhere to truly globalize this local manufacturing capability.

“There’s a lot of interest in parts of the world to make a relatively small industrial investment to enhance more availability — we’re seeing interest from Africa, India, China. Our target audience are both folk to enhance on an industrial level — big companies — and folk in small operations in Jaipur,” Quinlan said.

To that end, he noted a key tenet of MIT’s approach to technological know-how, explaining:

“The present thinking is: It would be a shame to lock away this knowledge in an ivory tower. We’re trying to think of ways to make this a hands-on experience. The cool thing about additive is that you can have a fully hands-on experience that’s still totally digital; you can have that full classroom experience at home. We’re really hopeful to construct something that makes people feel truly engaged, not just passive.”

Haden Quinlan, Program Manager, ADAPT

Quinlan is the Program Manager for MIT’s new Center for Additive and Digital Advanced Production Technologies (ADAPT), which will play a key role in the institute’s approach to AM education and furthering the technology.

“It’s our hope to bridge the gap between what technology can do now, coming improvements, and the hunger of the industry. Objectives include to understand holistically what it means for a company to invest in AM, to tackle ‘harebrained’ ideas and see where they lead, and to host symposia and conferences to share knowledge,” he explained.

“The valuable thing is just getting everyone in the room with a neutral interlocutor — and MIT is just here because we just like the technology and the knowledge. The goal is to shoot higher than discrete and discreet projects with proprietary IP. Desktop companies need an impetus to move forward. It’s our hope to get all these guys together and understand how lower-cost, more accessible things can extend their possibilities. ADAPT is about building an ecosystem to make additive a qualified mainstream production method. I think it’s almost there.”

ADAPT is launching soon, aiming to bring together great minds from a variety of backgrounds and verticals to advance the additive manufacturing industry as a whole. Gathering experts and sharing knowledge is a strong move in furthering possibilities — and in ensuring that MIT fulfills its vision of moving expertise beyond the ivory tower of academia.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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