Rice University Teams with Carbon and TyRex to Amplify Campus 3D Printing

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Rice University‘s Office of Innovation has partnered with Carbon and tech firm TyRex Group to strengthen its additive manufacturing (AM) capabilities. In addition, to facilitate widespread access to 3D printing and other prototyping resources, the university is establishing the Rice Nexus, a dedicated innovation space at the Ion building. Once the facility opens this summer, faculty and students will collaborate to transform “proof-of-principle” concepts into viable prototypes that appeal to industry and potential investors.

Spearheading this initiative is Paul Cherukuri, a physicist, chemist, and tech entrepreneur who was appointed as Rice University’s inaugural Vice President of Innovation last fall. Cherukuri emphasizes the significance of collaboration in expediting the transition of technology from the laboratory to practical applications. Notably, he highlights the growing importance of 3D printing in university innovation, as it enables the creation of previously unattainable designs and expedites the journey from an idea to a prototype and eventual product development.

This new collaboration draws upon Cherukuri’s firsthand experience as a research investigator. In 2021, he presented a groundbreaking proposal to the Office of Naval Research, resulting in a $1.3 million award. The initiative aimed to develop 3D printable smart helmets by employing 3D printing technology to create an exoskeleton reinforced with nanomaterials. These advanced helmets also integrated embedded sensors to provide active protection against kinetic or directed-energy impacts on the brain and could revolutionize conventional military helmets.

“The Navy was good with this because they understood the importance of thinking about manufacturing at the beginning,” Cherukuri said. “That is key for accelerating innovation. And it’s really where additive manufacturing takes off.”

According to Rice, when the Navy funded the project, it allowed Cherukuri to purchase two of Carbon’s industrial-grade 3D printers, an M2 model that was installed at Rice for smaller prints and a top-of-the-line, large-format L1 that was installed at TyRex’s Austin facility almost 170 miles from the Rice campus.

3D printed Rice Smart Helmet detects threats, monitors vital signs and provides situational awareness to soldiers. Image courtesy of P. Cherukuri/Rice University.

Cherukuri pointed out that the combination of Carbon printers and TyRex expertise has allowed the smart helmet team to “go seamlessly from idea to production,” and he wants to replicate that experience for other labs at Rice.

“If I design on the L1, I can hit print and print 1,000 of them, and that is a capability we did not have before. The fastest way to make a design production-ready is to work with someone experienced who understands the real-world challenges of product development, and that is what they bring,” suggests Cherukuri, who expects the facility’s capabilities, funding and resources will be defined by what the Office of Innovation learns from faculty surveys.

TyRex expressed its pride in collaborating with Rice University and Carbon to expedite the market launch of products like the Rice Smart Helmet. As part of this endeavor, the university has announced Grant Belton as the lead design engineer at Nexus. Belton will oversee product designs, from concept development to creating production-ready prototypes.

Paul Cherukuri. Image courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University.

Overall, Rice University has a strong emphasis on research and innovation across various disciplines, and 3D printing technology has been widely explored and used in many research projects and initiatives. In particular, the university’s renowned Department of Mechanical Engineering plays an active role in 3D printing-related research, where faculty members have made noteworthy contributions by exploring novel materials, techniques, and applications.

For example, Marcia O’Malley, a professor of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science, explores the use of 3D printing to create customized robotic devices and assistive technologies for individuals with disabilities. In addition, James Tour, a professor of Chemistry, Computer Science, and Materials Science and NanoEngineering, has developed methods for 3D printing graphene-based materials, which hold promise for applications such as energy storage and electronics.

In addition to the upcoming Rice Nexus, the university encourages interdisciplinary collaboration at its Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), where students can find a range of 3D printers for design and prototyping processes, and a research facility called the Smalley-Curl Institute that uses 3D printing for nanotechnology research. Furthermore, the university’s Department of Chemistry has a 3D printing lab for creating custom equipment and apparatuses for research projects. The upcoming Rice Nexus site will further boost the integration of 3D printing technology throughout multiple departments and facilities across the campus, propelling innovation to new heights.

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