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Mechanical engineers win first America Makes Innovation Sprint

October 4, 2016

DREAMS Lab accepts award
Chris Williams, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the DREAMS lab, shakes hands with Ed Morris, director of America Makes and vice president of the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining. At right is John Wilczynski, deputy director of technology development for America Makes. From left are members of the DREAMS lab, doctoral student Joseph Kubalak with the printed wing the team presented, post-doctoral researcher Don Aduba, and doctoral student Logan Sturm.

Virginia Tech’s Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab received first place in the inaugural Innovation Sprint. The Sprint is a national competition sponsored by America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI).

The team, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students within the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and one student from electrical and computer engineering, answered an Innovation Sprint call focused on smart structures. The team developed a printed wing section that demonstrates an additive manufacturing process capable of fabricating parts with integrated sensing and actuation. The winning design was presented at the America Makes Program Review and Members Meeting Sept. 28 in Youngstown, Ohio.

“Our goal is to use additive manufacturing to directly fabricate mechatronic devices – products that can both move, and have on-board sensing to detect and control that movement,” said Chris Williams, associate professor of mechanical engineering and DREAMS lab director. “To demonstrate our progress toward this goal, we 3-D printed a multimaterial wing with a control surface – that is the flap of the wing – that is both adjusted and controlled by embedded actuators and sensors.”

The team created the wing with pre-designed pockets to hold the embedded objects. The 3-D printing process is paused at the layers that feature these pockets, the components are placed into the wing, and the printing is resumed.

“We’ve been researching the potential of embedding foreign objects into 3-D printed multimaterial products since 2011,” Williams said. “What makes this design unique is that it’s the first time we’ve combined all that prior work into a single product. We have embedded actuation, strain sensing, temperature sensing, and two different antennae built into the wing.”

The process of embedded components eliminates post-process assembly and simplifies the manufacturing process to a single step on a single machine. The embedding process also protects the sensors and circuits from environmental effects. As a single part, the structure doesn’t have the inherent weaknesses that come from seams found in assembled products.

Williams said the DREAMS Lab entry creates potential for future innovation. “We’re demonstrating that tomorrow’s intelligent products cannot rely on today’s manufacturing processes and materials,” he said. “We are advancing 3-D printing by combining different aspects of component inclusion to answer the need of new production technologies.”

The efforts of Williams and his lab have earned Virginia Tech a silver-level membership to the institute for a year, which is worth $15,000. “While the win is great for us as a lab, all Virginia Tech faculty are now eligible to compete in America Makes project calls and join a national academic/industrial network to seed future collaborations and projects in the area of additive manufacturing,” Williams said.

The submitting team included mechanical engineering postdoc Donald Aduba, of Kansas City, Missouri; doctoral students Logan Sturm, of Bedford, Virginia, and Joseph Kubalak, of Franklin, Tennessee; and electrical and computer engineering senior Richard Dumene, of Leesburg, Virginia.

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