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Virginia Tech Receives $800K DoD Grant to Research Friction Stir Metal 3D Printing

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The US Department of Defense (DoD) has granted Virginia Tech $800,000 to research a form of metal 3D printing known as additive friction stir deposition (AFSD). Virginia Tech will use the funds, disbursed as part of the 2023 Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP), to purchase a computerized AFSD machine that will be housed in the university’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

AFSD is unique amongst metal additive manufacturing (AM) techniques in that it can build end-parts using solid state metals as inputs, but without melting them. Instead, AFSD machines work by deploying a hollow, rapidly rotating cylindrical tool through which the materials are fed. The heat caused by the friction of the tool makes the metals pliable, thereby welding the new feedstock to the preceding layer.

Professor Hang Yu, materials science and engineering professor at Virginia Tech

In a Virginia Tech press release about the university’s newly awarded DURIP grant, the primary investigator on the award, Hang Yu, an associate professor of material science and engineering at Virginia Tech, explained, “This equipment is going to help Virginia Tech to be at the forefront of solid state metal [AM] research. This is transdisciplinary research in nature. You have materials people, you have industrial systems people, and you have data science people. And it’s not just research — it’s also about education and workforce development.”

The press release did not specify the particular machine that the DURIP funds will be allocated towards. However, it did mention that Professor Yu — who recently published a textbook on AFSD — has worked with MELD Manufacturing, also based in Virginia. The company holds more than a dozen patents related to the technology, so it seems like a safe bet to assume that Virginia Tech will be purchasing a MELD machine.

Virginia Tech student studies “first-generation” AFSD machine

If that’s the case, Virginia Tech will be joining the US Army’s Rock Island Arsenal as a part of MELD’s customer base. This spring, the Rock Island Arsenal is set to become the home of “the world’s largest metal 3D printer”, which is a joint project between MELD and Ingersoll Rand. That printer will be used to produce ground vehicles for the US military.

The relevance of that project to the one at Virginia Tech sheds light once again on a rather important theme in the nexus between higher education and the military. The theme is the disproportionate effect that an amount like $800,000 — a relatively small sum when the US military is involved — can have, precisely because it is the US military that is granting the funds, and precisely because it is directing the money to a world-class research institution like Virginia Tech. Even just in this one niche within a niche sector, an economy is visibly, rapidly being built up between three core areas of society: the government/military, business, and academia.

At the same time, it seems fairly clear that other agencies of the US government, especially the Department of Energy (DOE), need to be brought as close to parity as is possible with the military, in order for the general push for electrification to have any realistic chance of success. Last the year, the establishment the type of structural economic relationships present in the DURIP grant, but in the context of renewable energy, was one of the AM sector’s biggest wins. In years to come, public subsidies to advanced manufacturing companies for renewable energy projects will only become more crucial to the success of all parties involved.

Images courtesy of Virginia Tech

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