By Nadia M. Whitehead
UTEP News Service
3-D printing is all the rage, but believe it or not, the technology has been around since the 1980s. The University of Texas at El Paso has been ahead of the game – since 2001, the University has had a center completely dedicated to it.
UTEP’s W.M. Keck Center for 3-D Innovation – a state-of-the-art laboratory focusing on the advancement of 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing – has recently turned its attention to 3-D printed electronics for space.
“If you can make 3-D electronics, that’s great, but if you can make 3-D electronics that can go into space and continue to work, then that makes a statement about reliability,” said Eric MacDonald, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate director of the Keck Center. “Space is a vacuum, and there’s radiation, and incredibly wide temperature swings – which can cause materials to degrade.”
The center’s research is funded by multiple entities, including the Air Force Research Labs, NASA, Lockheed Martin, and GE Aviation – all linked to the aerospace industry, which is where Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and the center director, believes the biggest impact can be made in additive printing technology right now.
“We’re going to have the most immediate success in the aerospace sector because there’s a real need to push these technologies to where you can use them in production,” Wicker said.
For instance, GE Aviation’s goal is to start flying 3-D printed parts in their jet engines by 2014, according to Frank Medina, doctoral student and manager of the center.
UTEP hopes to improve the industry through innovations such as multi-material printing (most 3-D printers can only print one material at a time, either metal or plastic) that can print combined electronic and mechanical structures; new metal material options that can withstand higher temperatures; and new additive manufacturing processes that produce high-performance production parts.
James Lyke, principal electronics engineer at the space electronics branch of the United State Air Force Research Laboratory, wrote that the Keck Center “has amassed one of the world’s most impressive armadas of 3-D printing equipment” in a recent article in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Spectrum magazine.
He hopes that technology developed at the center will help lower the production time for building complex satellites – which usually takes years – to weeks or months.
By printing these high-value, customized products and creating the hybrid manufacturing technologies to carry them out, UTEP’s goal is to help bring manufacturing back to the United States from nations like China.
“There are advantages provided by these technologies that will bring back high-value, mass customized parts to the U.S.,” Wicker said. “If you have one of these systems that can really produce a production part, then it makes more sense to produce the part locally and remove, for example, the time and cost of shipping.”
In addition to printing new and unique designs, the technology can potentially lower production costs by saving labor and materials.
For instance, instead of purchasing a large sheet of metal, machining it and creating waste, 3-D printing technologies can create exactly what you need – no more, no less.
“Essentially, there’s little to no waste in the process, so you can save tremendous amounts of material in development,” Medina said. “Another big issue is that if you do something very complex, you need to build it in parts and then assemble them. But with 3-D printing, you can print everything together and reduce assembly, inspection and manufacturability costs because you’re building one part instead of five.”
If you haven’t seen additive manufacturing in action yet, it’s pretty neat.
After engineers have created a digital model of the product using computer-aided design (CAD), the machine prints by adding multiple layers of material until it’s finished – hence, the term “additive” printing.
Companies offering 3-D printing services are beginning to sprout on the Internet. With a digital design in hand, anyone can have an object printed and shipped to them, all through an online transaction. In five to 10 years, Wicker envisions auto parts and home improvement stores serving customers with additive printers, much like having digital photos printed at the drugstore down the street.
“If you need a custom part for your vehicle, you could download the design from the Internet or design it yourself, and print it in the store,” he said. “It wouldn’t be cheap, but it also wouldn’t require the store to have all those parts in their inventory or to order them.”
As for owning a printer and printing products like the iPhone in your garage – MacDonald thinks that’s further away, but ultimately, inevitable.
“The problem with the adoption of all this is that the majority of us are not well-versed in CAD, and the process requires a 3-D design file,” Wicker said. “So it’s going to be just like the Internet age, where everyone had to learn how to use it. Once we are that well-versed in CAD, anyone will be able to print virtually anything.”