America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, has awarded a team of university and corporate partners — led by The University of Texas at El Paso — a grant to further 3-D printing technologies for rapid manufacturing of aerospace systems. The University's W.M. Keck Center for 3-D Innovation will lead the collaboration funded by a total research investment of approximately $2.2 million. Partners include the University of New Mexico, Youngstown State University, the Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., rp+m, Inc., and Stratasys, Inc.
"At a recent National Academy of Engineering committee meeting, UTEP was recognized as one of the top five research universities in the U.S.A. for 3-D printing," said Eric MacDonald, Ph.D., associate director of the Keck Center and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. "The award of this federal grant will enable UTEP to take the next step in building our research infrastructure to develop the next generation of 3-D printers – systems that can print satellites or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)."
Researchers will focus on creating an additive manufacturing printing system, or 3-D printer, that can fabricate multi-material aerospace components with multi-functional purposes.
The machine will not only be able to print multiple materials using a series of 3-D printers, but will become a manufacturing suite all on its own – with abilities like micromachining, robotic placement of electronic components, and the ability to connect electronic components with wiring.
The team's ultimate goal is to manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites and test them in the harsh environments of air and space.
"Our proposing team can see a day where a push-button design flow will lead to a rapid, reliable and affordable fully 3-D printed spacecraft or UAV," the researchers wrote in their proposal to America Makes. "The ability to proceed from design to operational use in 24 hours makes the space and airborne resources truly responsive. The team believes we currently have the skills, tools and proven results to advance the concepts of a fully printable aerospace asset."
President Barack Obama envisioned a network of institutes like America Makes in 2012 in order to revitalize manufacturing in the United States.
"President Obama highlighted the importance of 3-D printing to American manufacturing in his 2012 State of Union address," said Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., director of the Keck Center and professor of mechanical engineering. "Since then, he has started a manufacturing initiative and the fact that UTEP has just led and won a grant from America Makes is a testament to the strength of manufacturing research that is ongoing here on the border."