Research Highlights / Full Story

Additive Manufacturing and Multifunctional Printing

In 2012, Cormier, the Earl W. Brinkman Professor in RIT’s industrial and systems engineering department, was awarded nearly $600,000 by the National Science Foundation for a project entitled “Partnership for Innovation in Printed Devices and Materials.” It brought together RIT and Rochester-based company Intrinsiq Materials, located in the Eastman Business Park, as well as NovaCentrix and Optomec, national companies that manufacture equipment for print/deposition, nano-inks, and print applications. The university-corporate partnership collaborates to further develop ink chemistries suited to aerosol jet printing and photonic sintering. The partnerships also target development of multi-material printing techniques to enable the synthesis of devices such as micro­pumps for drug delivery, organic solar cells, among other new applications.

These focus areas are the key in the market growth in functional 3D printing—improvements to print equipment, new nano-ink materials development, and applications for products built using functional 3D-print technologies. RIT has made significant inroads into training both its students and industry professionals in using functional 3D-printing technologies. The lab partnerships also have expanded to include capabilities in chemical processing, new materials development, and expanded prototyping work for startup companies. 

Growth has been so significant since the initial grant and collaborations that Cormier will soon oversee the installation of a new lab at RIT, the Additive Manufacturing and Multi­functional Printing (AMPrint) Center.

Companies make printable nano-inks. Other companies build devices using the nano-inks, but in between it is necessary to fuse the inks into solid form through thermal processing that makes the materials and devices operational. RIT’s unique pulsed photonic curing system from NovaCentrix has been an incredible magnet to the lab, said Cormier, because it is the unifying factor for enabling the lab to print devices that blend together multiple materials in ways never before possible. 

The NovaCentrix can thermally process and fuse high-temperature metals and ceramics onto low-temperature paper or plastic. These are the foundational materials being used for flexible electronics, considered a targeted growth market for New York state, and specifically for companies
in the Eastman Business Park. 

“And for that reason, that NovaCentrix system we have is a huge draw for a lot of local companies, both large and small, that bring samples here to test the process,” said Cormier.

Testing processes and products have included faculty from RIT as well as company R & D personnel. RIT chemistry professor Chris Collison has been working with Cormier on developing water-based organic photovoltaic  materials that are ink-jet printable. Engineering professor David Borkholder has utilized the lab capabilities to build nano-structures for a micro-pump, inner ear drug delivery system. Outside of RIT, the lab has had visitors from across the U.S., including startup company Liquid X, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes conductive silver ink.

“Initially the company was looking more into photonic curing, and as the project started to evolve, we were having some printing issues,” Cormier explained. A possible solution was modifying the ink chemistry, and to explore this, Cormier engaged Scott Williams, a College of Science chemistry professor with expertise in ink chemistry. The group has since extended the project scope.  

Another collaboration is part of a NYSERDA grant with an LED light bulb manufacturing company in the Albany area. Although LED bulbs are an energy-efficient technology, they are expensive to produce. The company has refined a low-cost manufacturing process, but needs to be able to print the electronics onto molded plastic parts. Cormier will be able to guide them through the process and possibly the use of new materials for developing an even more efficient light bulb.

This integrated use of 3D-printing technologies for mechanical, electrical, chemical, and optical capabilities is an example of the broader focus the group will take through the new AMPrint Center. 

For example, printed organic photovoltaic inks can be used to create cost-effective and flexible thin film solar cells that turn sunlight into energy. Printed touch sensors require conductive inks that can be used to make the necessary electrical contacts. Multifunctional printing can be used
to print sensors such as medical diagnostic test strips or food spoilage indicators. It’s even possible to print material that can be used in thermal applications such as heating and cooling elements for automotive windows like rear window defrosters.  

“These are different types of functions, and they are all produced by different materials. All of those materials are printable, which is the basis of the AMPrint Center,” said Cormier. “We hope to define where 3D printing is going to be five years from now.

Rather than just making mechanical parts, 3D-printing processes will soon
be able to blend together materials that serve multiple functions to enhance product performance in ways we never thought possible. We believe that is the next big thing, and we believe that RIT will play a large role in making that transformation happen. 

“We also believe that Rochester is uniquely positioned to drive the evolution of 3D printing because this region arguably has the largest concentration of print industry expertise in the world. Between the area’s universities, companies, and state/federal support, Rochester could very well become the Silicon Valley of multifunctional 3D printing.”