In 1980, it took 25 jobs to generate $1 million in manufacturing output in the United States, according to the Brookings Institution. Today, it takes five.
That’s why manufacturing today requires highly skilled workers using next-generation equipment. RIT’s AMPrint Center is positioned to make an impact in that new reality—investing in and conducting innovative additive manufacturing research and leading new equipment, materials, and product development.
The AMPrint Center, which opened last fall, brings together university and corporate researcher-scientists to advance two industries that the region is noted for—printing and imaging—in a way that will significantly impact manufacturing in New York state and the nation.
“The vision for this center is to be at the forefront of creating the next generation of 3D-printing technologies, materials, and applications,” said Denis Cormier, the Brinkman Professor in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering and director of the center. “That can take the form of new technologies invented here or through partnerships with really innovative companies.”
The AMPrint Center is one of 15 Centers for Advanced Technology supported through NYSTAR, a division of New York state’s Empire State Development. The RIT center was awarded a 10-year designation in 2015 and includes $921,000 per year in funding from the state to support research operations. Additional funding of $500,000 was awarded through the state’s Higher Education Capital Facilities Program and was matched by the university and corporate partners to support construction of the lab.
State-of-the-art equipment in the center includes an Optomec Aerosol Jet printer, Stratasys additive manufacturing equipment, and a Novacentrix photonic curing system. Usually found in industry, the Novacentrix is rare in a university setting and will be a resource for both faculty-researchers and regional companies creating new devices using metals and ceramics.
For RIT, the center offers the opportunity to conduct groundbreaking research, while also training students as the next-generation workforce.
“The AMPrint Center is one of the first centers in the country to focus on multifunctional printing,” Cormier said. “We are at the forefront of this technology.”
Defined as the process of developing single products using a variety of materials with different conductive properties, multifunctional 3D printing opens the door for a wide variety of products to be made faster, stronger, and less expensively.
“There are a lot of different materials that serve functions other than a mechanical function, and they can be printed,” Cormier said. “That is what we are focused on, multi-material 3D printing using functional materials that we are developing to embed electronics— heaters, sensors, you name it—within a 3D-printed part.”
Embedded electronics have powerful sensors directly “written” onto materials and equipment.
Working with sponsors Quest Integrated and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory scientists, RIT microsystems engineering Professor David Borkholder is part of the team helping to develop a new sensor system called Smart Skins. These are ultrathin, printed electronic devices of 50 microns—the equivalent of a human hair— but strong enough to detect information about the effect of airflow across an aircraft’s wing and how this pressure might change material properties and structural reliability.
They were 3D printed using the AMPrint Center’s high-tech ink-jet deposition and photonic systems without damage from the sintering procedure, even using the high heat of the photonic equipment.
Another of Borkholder’s projects using the direct-write application is for an inner ear drug delivery system, consisting of a micropump, canulae, and micro-electrical-mechanical system (MEMS) technologies. Designed to deliver bio-therapies to address noise-induced hearing loss and other hearing disorders, precision-detailed nano-scale sensors for the micropump are being 3D printed as part of the overall inner ear MEMS system.
College of Science faculty researchers Scott Williams and Zoran Nikov are working with ThermoFisher to produce a low-cost imaging sensor to take photos of ultraviolet wavelengths. Cameras can detect visible light, but ultraviolet light has a shorter wavelength that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
The researchers are using the 3D-printing processes to put a coating of quantum dots—nanoscale semiconductor particles—onto a low-cost imaging sensor to better fluoresce visible light. Capturing an image with ultraviolet light can be used for space applications specific to differentiating gas temperatures, magnetic fields, or other atmospheric data.
While AMPrint’s core focus is to develop a better scientific understanding of how materials in a multifunctional device interact with one another and affect the overall composite material’s performance, researchers are also investigating equipment improvements.
3D printing is enabled onto various substrates because of high-tech print equipment and nontraditional materials such as metals and ceramics being used similar to the way traditional inks had been deposited through xerography. Even traditional manufacturing equipment is being enhanced with additive manufacturing functionality to continually improve operational processes.
One hybrid manufacturing system project in development blends 3D printing/additive manufacturing with traditional machining to make metal parts. RIT and Hardinge Corp., an Elmira-based equipment manufacturing company; Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies in Texas; and the laser company IPG Photonics are building prototype systems to allow fabrication of metallic parts through a combination of laser material deposition and milling or turning. Vader Systems, a Buffalo startup, is developing an ink-jet printing system using metal wire. After meeting Cormier at a symposium last year, the company sought advice on how to further develop its liquid metal 3D-printing process—an ink-jet printing system using metal wire fed into the print head.
Existing commercial technologies for making metal parts use powdered metal and a laser that scans the powder, melts it, then repeats the process. It is cost prohibitive as metal powder typically costs five to 10 times more than the exact same material in bar or wire form.
Vader’s new process would make both a financial and a process impact. Some of their development toward these ends are taking place with AMPrint researchers.
“We are just starting to see systems that are able to print conductive materials for electronics within a 3D-printed part,” said Cormier. “I think that is what differentiates our emphasis because the region has such a strong history in printing technology. New York state is very well-positioned to capitalize on ‘3D printing 2.0.’ Multifunctional printing will be 3D printing 2.0.”