As 3D printing has become more common, innovative design has risen steadily to take advantage of its capacity to prototype rapidly and produce objects anywhere a machine can be plugged in.

Virginia Tech has implemented campuswide efforts to make the technology easily accessible at locations such as the Newman Library, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and more. Within the College of Engineering, the Frith First-Year Makerspace is available specifically for new students, in addition to assorted facilities within departments. Students also have purchased their own machines, seizing opportunities for invention even in residence halls and apartment buildings.

Within the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab is diligently pushing 3D printing to its next level. Lab director and L.S. Randolph Professor Chris Williams is a 25-year veteran of the discipline, having entered the field well before 3D printing became an academic buzzword. Since Williams arrived on campus in 2008, his team has not only produced a steady stream of innovative 3D-printed objects, they have also led initiatives to make better printers, pioneered new materials, and mentored the next generation of inventors.

From this unique environment, a landmark academic year has sprung. Since the start of classes in the fall of 2021, multiple teams of students have racked up a series of significant wins. Their work has introduced major cost savings for industry, catapulted new possibilities for work in space, supercharged engines, and enriched quality of life.

Winning international design competitions

One group of undergraduates, mentored by Williams and postdoctoral researcher Joseph Kubalak, caught the eye of NASA.

The nine-member senior design team, working directly out of the DREAMS Lab, picked up $75,000 in funding as part of NASA’s University Student Research Challenge grant competition to create a robotic work cell for the autonomous production of a 3D-printed drone. This would require not only producing individual parts but assembling them and creating a working final product.

The funding allowed the team to formalize their research idea into a challenge: to bring together computer-aided design, mechatronics and robotics, programming, and structural analysis to fabricate the drone chassis, embed the electronics, and scrape the completed drone off the plate. If all went well, the finished drone would be able to fly away from the plate and shoot a video of the next drone being created.

The yearlong process of senior design yielded just that. The team started as the fall semester opened, taking four months to create conceptual designs and prototype solutions. After the holiday break, they used the next five months to deploy the machinery that would print and assemble the final product.

The first drone flew away from the printer in April.

Completing a project this complex within such a short amount of time would have been monumental for an army of experienced engineers, but it is especially remarkable for a group of students working on their first degree.

“This is not your ordinary 3D printer,” said Williams. “This is an industrial robot that is programmed to both 3D print and assemble electronics to enable autonomous fabrication of complete mechatronic systems. That is a pretty big deal.”

Along the way, the team of undergraduates also took home the top prize at the Student Manufacturing Design Competition, held annually at North America’s preeminent and longest-running international forum for applied research and industrial applications in manufacturing and design. That challenge is administered by both the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Tadek Kosmal, the senior team’s project lead, commented on the wild semester he and his classmates experienced.

“A year ago, if you had told me that I’d be doing this, that I’d have this accomplished, I would have said no way,” he said. “Let alone in this short amount of time. Now, every time we show the video of the drone flying off the build plate, you can just see it in people’s eyes. Wow. I did that.”

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A second mechanical engineering senior design group won SME’s Digital Manufacturing Challenge, an annual international competition awarded each year at the largest additive manufacturing (3D printing) industrial conference and exhibition in the United States. This year’s competition challenged university students to find innovative ways to use 3D printing to address supply chain issues.

Virginia Tech’s team of six students, advised by Williams, his Ph.D. student Sam Pratt, and Daniel Braley, an industrial sponsor from Boeing, used a new metal additive manufacturing process to fabricate hard-to-find replacement parts for Boeing’s older planes. They achieved lower costs, shorter production time, and even made the parts more lightweight than the originals.

The student team first used topology optimization to redesign an old part to reduce part mass while ensuring that the part could survive the required loading. The team then used the DREAMS Lab’s new hybrid wire arc additive manufacturing system that produces layered parts with wire-arc welding. During the print, a CNC milling tool in the machine planed each layer surface to ensure consistency in thickness and quality. After all the metal layers were complete, the CNC router was again used to improve the part’s surface finish, to further reduce part mass, and to carefully finish mounting surfaces with high precision. This yielded a final product optimized for strength and weight.

The focus of the project wasn’t on producing one part, but rather on delivering a process to the company that could enable low-cost, on-site production of replacement aircraft components. As a result, aircraft would no longer be grounded while waiting for the delivery of replacement parts – instead, they could be quickly fabricated in the aircraft hangar. 

Shortly after claiming their prize at SME’s RAPID + TCT exhibition, the team was featured on a live broadcast of the YouTube channel for the 3D Printing Nerd. In that broadcast, project member and mechanical engineering senior Ben Nguyen talked to host Joel Telling about the team’s work.

“Boeing came to us with a fleet sustainment problem,” said Nguyen. “They have a lot of older planes that need one-off replacement parts that can’t be manufactured using traditional means. It would take a lot of time and money for one part.”

Once optimized, the method could mean a savings of millions of dollars for Boeing and a huge step forward for the future of metal 3D printing.

The senior design team sponsored by Boeing displays a metal 3D-printed piece they produced at the award ceremony for the SME Digital Manufacturing Challenge.
Nic Tomanelli, Omkar Shinde, Ben Nguyen, Matthew Martin, Daniel Chirvasuta, and Nathanael High speak with their industrial mentor, Daniel Braley of Boeing Global Services, before their post-award interview with the Voices AMplified at the RAPID+TCT event. Photo courtesy of the team.

Winning with industry

Braskem, a 3D printing filament company, developed a new 3D printing material and decided to put it to the test by placing it in the hands of students from four universities.

The 3D Dimensions Design Competition featured Virginia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Cal Tech, and Penn State and brought instructors such as Williams and Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Michael Bortner into the conversation with young collegiate designers. Previously, Braskem had developed relationships with professors at these universities to gain insight into their 3D-printing programs and had identified the four target schools as having some of the best programs in the country.

The Braskem challenge was advertised campuswide, and students proposed designs for novel products in the categories of aerospace/transportation and mobility/medical. Williams created an interface for interested students to connect virtually and posted relevant content from his own 3D-printing course as guidance. He and Bortner also provided lab facilities for printing projects.

Braskem supplied students with the filament they needed and gave competitors a month and a half from registration to submit their ideas. The projects were judged based on creativity, benefits and applications, efficiency and design, and the quality of a final part. Both categories had a first-, second-, and third-place winner, for a total of six awards given by the company.

A total of 35 student projects were submitted from the four schools, 18 of which were selected to progress to the final judging round. At the end of the competition, Virginia Tech won every award.

“One aspect that I love about Virginia Tech is that our students are always seeking new opportunities to get involved and to learn new skills,” Williams said. “I continue to be impressed by their commitment to this competition. Many were busy learning new software, and designing, printing, and testing their designs at the end of the spring 2022 semester in the face of many other important commitments. Their success is a testament to how diligent and talented excellent our students really are.”

First place in the aerospace/transportation category went to mechanical engineering major Matthew Stuart. His design was for a low-cost durable supercharger for an internal combustion engine, 100 percent customizable based on the size of the engine. The supercharger shoots air into the engine by compressing it with a small electric motor, and Stuart chose to put emphasis on the design of the air routing system. In testing the device on a riding mower engine, the design boosted the horsepower of the engine up to 10 percent.

Matthew Stuart’s award-winning design for a 3D-printed supercharger.
Matthew Stuart’s award-winning design for a 3D-printed supercharger. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stuart.

Stuart was pleased with the energy payoff that he saw in testing.

“What I really wanted to see was more power from the engine than I put in electrically into the motor,” said Stuart. “Overall you just save energy, money, gas, using something like that.”

In the mobility/medical portion of Braskem’s competition, first place went to mechanical engineering majors Joshua McLevain and Chase Basham for creating a cuff that can be used by someone who has lost part of an arm. The cuff is customizable to the size of a person’s arm and provides a fast, secure fit for prosthetics that could serve different purposes. Because the fit is created exactly to personal measurements, comfort can be maximized to best suit the unique needs of a user’s body.

McLevain and Chase also created two prosthetic attachments, one for riding a bike and one for driving a car. Because these two activities require a different range of motions, these prosthetic options provide a user with tools ideally suited to the task.

“I’ve always liked the biomechanics side of mechanical engineering,” said Basham. “Being able to do a project like this that is very useful and helps others has always been an interest of mine.”

From NASA to prosthetics, each of this year’s projects have been an achievement to themselves. Together they stock a wall of trophies for new solutions that make a better world, and are no small source of pride for a professor watching creative energy and ingenuity in action. Williams remains an ardent fan of the students who produce that energy and ingenuity, and is also a little amazed at the awards earned by young engineers just starting their careers.

“Virginia Tech was awarded first place in SME’s two international 3D printing student design competitions,” he said. “This has never been done before. In addition, not only was Virginia Tech only one of four universities to be invited to participate in an industry-sponsored university competition, but our students won every prize available. These results truly show our students’ passion and readiness for innovating with the future technologies of advanced manufacturing.”

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