Long-term support from NSF-ENG for improved manufacturing processes is now paying dividends, as several flexible manufacturing technologies are emerging from the research-and-development pipeline into real-world industrial applications. These processes form the core of new manufacturing strategies that can produce dramatic time and cost savings for businesses.
Two such technologies are 3-D printing, developed by Emanuel Sachs and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and high-speed, droplet-based manufacturing, developed by Melissa Orme of the University of California–Irvine. Both processes rest on the realization that an object of any shape can be created by stacking very thin layers, usually about the thickness of a human hair.
With these technologies and computer-design software, a designer can push a button and “print out” a 3-D version of a functional part or tool. The “printed” object can be different every time, much as ink jet
printers can be used with desktop publishing software to quickly and cheaply create various kinds of documents. These rapid fabrication techniques can cut the interval from designer’s concept to testing of a finished component from six months to as little as one hour and eliminate the costliest steps involved in developing new products.
Professor Sachs’s 3-D printing process is already revolutionizing the world of industrial design and prototyping. It involves spreading thin layers of powder, which are selectively joined by a binder material. The process can be used to make objects (for prototyping or actual use) of virtually any powdered substance and has been licensed for use in diverse fields, including metal parts and tooling,
industrial filters, biomedical devices, and computer-assisted design.
Professor Orme’s process uses streams of molten metal generated at rates of up to 40,000 droplets per second. These droplets are steered by electric fields to precise locations in the finished part. The technology has attracted industry partners interested in applications ranging from aircraft parts to computer processors.