There is an old joke about engineers that goes like this:

Q: How can you tell which engineers are the extroverts?

A: They are the ones staring at other people’s shoes.

Once you are done laughing, however, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Christopher Williams whose work as a professor of mechanical engineering and as Director of the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab at Virginia Tech has him acting the social butterfly. At a recent engagement in Newport News where Dr. Williams was asked to share his exciting work with a lay audience, he summed up why people are finding his work and that of VA Tech so interesting:ant

“So what really sets VA Tech apart in the area of additive manufacturing, or what is more commonly referred to as 3D printing, we have  a wide array of technologies that really allow us to print any type of material from polymers to metals, ceramics, biomaterials, nano-composites, and even foundry sands for metal casting. Sometimes a business [will approach us] saying we already make this material, can it be 3D printed? We also have, sometimes where people say we want a new product with new functionality design a new material, a manufacturing process, and the product. And that’s something that VA Tech is very, very capable of. That’s what really sets us apart.”

Recently, he worked with students to create an ‘Ant vehicle’ prototype to be used in disaster relief. The testing of the vehicle involved creating man-made barriers and walking it over natural terrain to see how well it could function in stressful and irregular environments. The vehicle, which is entirely 3D printed, works by using six legs to ‘crawl’ over obstacles as easily as an ant across a picnicker’s unattended potato salad.

This isn’t the first time that the DREAM Lab has worked with the military. Previously, students and faculty collaborated on a project to create a material for lightweight aircraft carrier decks with enhanced cooling possibilities and a second project was undertaken to provide lightweight but stiff armor for military vehicles. However, not everything they work on has a military application. Other projects that they have undertaken have involved the careful study and redesign of bicycle helmet topology.Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 11.48.39 AM

“Really what we do is we try to push those technologies even further,” said Dr. Williams. “We develop new materials, new processes, and new design applications for this emerging technology to transfer it from a prototyping machine into a true manufacturing platform for creating completely new products with new functionalities.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 11.48.11 AMVA Tech President Timothy Sands waxed enthusiastic about the DREAMS lab work and 3D printing in general:

“Who knows where that’s going to lead? It’s just, there’s some people whose creative streak can only be stimulated by being able to see and touch and create an object and I think that will unleash a lot of dormant creativity in our society.”

His attitude reflects the general buoyancy experienced by the public in the face of the possibilities for 3D printing. Combine that with the expertise of dedicated faculty such as Christopher Williams and a growing number of bright and energetic students and you truly have a recipe for innovation.

Let us know your thoughts in the VA Tech Ant Vehicle forum thread over at 3DPB.com.

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