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Pitt researchers receive America Makes grant to develop computational “latticework” for additive manufacturing

PITTSBURGH (February 11, 2014) … Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing represents a transformative method for time-sensitive, on-demand production of complex structures from a digital blueprint. But a research team from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering proposes that by integrating a cellular structure or "latticework" into the digital blueprint, load-bearing AM products can be made more sustainably, with less weight and lower cost while maintaining the necessary structural integrity.

"Developing Topology Optimization Tools that Enable Efficient Design of AM Cellular Structures" was one of 15 projects selected by America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute , as part of its second call for additive manufacturing (AM) applied research and development projects. Principal investigator is Albert To, PhD , assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science; and co-PIs are Kevin P. Chen, PhD , associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and Paul E. Lego Faculty Fellow, and David Schmidt, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science. The $438,000 contract, with an additional $526,000 match from Pitt and corporate partners, is for an 18-month period.

3D printing utilizes a robotic arm to lay successive layers of materials such as ceramics, metals and polymers to create simple structures or complex parts. Dr. To's research aims to further enhance AM by integrating a computer-designed cellular structure into the layering process, allowing for more efficient and sustainable manufacturing.

"When we design a load-bearing structure, we need to span a certain volume. But we don't need to create an entirely solid object; we just need to create a framework to maintain its structural integrity," Dr. To explained. "By developing a computational model that allows us to integrate a cellular structure into the designs of AM products, we can reduce weight, maintain load-bearing capacity, and enhance the sustainability of the entire process."

Dr. To says that because AM is so new, current computational tools don't allow for the optimal design of a complex cellular structure within an AM product. Coupling his research expertise in computational mechanics and materials with companies involved in additive manufacturing, computational modeling, and materials will enable them to develop more efficient design and optimization of these cellular structures. Corporate partners will include Actuec Precision Machining Inc. (Saegertown, Pa.), Alcoa Inc. (Pittsburgh), ANSYS Inc. (Canonsburg, Pa.) and ExOne (North Huntingdon, Pa.).

"Design of AM cellular structures can be incredibly complicated, and so we need to utilize advanced mechanics theory to create an efficient model that can be used for multiple AM platforms and with various types of materials," he said. "This also allows for easier recycling of a product because the cellular structure enables the base materials to be broken down into the native powder form used in AM."

The team will investigate many different kinds of lattice structures, from random patterns to geometric forms like honeycombs, to determine which provides the best structural integrity in AM. He notes that varying the porosity of cellular structures optimizes the weight and mechanical performance of a product, making AM a more valuable tool for aerospace, healthcare, and military applications such as on-demand manufacturing of replacement parts.

"Every extra pound adds to the cost of manufacturing, transporting and storing a product, and so introducing a cellular matrix helps to reduce these costs while still maintaining a high degree of quality," he says. "For example, we could create lighter parts for aircrafts that would improve fuel efficiency without sacrificing reliability. Or instead of storing complex replacement parts on remote military bases and even the International Space Station, 3D printers could be used to manufacture a new part without having to transport them from the supplier.

"Additive manufacturing will not replace traditional manufacturing, but it will become a cost-effective, sustainable alternative for many niche applications."

About America Makes

America Makes is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. As the national accelerator for additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing (3DP), America Makes is the nation's leading and collaborative partner in AM and 3DP technology research, discovery, creation, and innovation. Structured as a public-private partnership with member organizations from industry, academia, government, non-government agencies, and workforce and economic development resources, we are working together to innovate and accelerate AM and 3DP to increase our nation's global manufacturing competitiveness. Based in Youngstown, Ohio, America Makes is the pilot institute for up to 45 manufacturing innovation institutes and is driven by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM). For more information about America Makes, visit http://americamakes.us.


NCDMM delivers optimized manufacturing solutions that enhance the quality, affordability, maintainability, and rapid deployment of existing and yet-to-be developed defense systems. This is accomplished through collaboration with government, industry, and academic organizations to promote the implementation of best practices to key stakeholders through the development and delivery of disciplined training, advanced technologies, and methodologies. NCDMM also manages the national accelerator for additive manufacturing (AM) and 3DP printing (3DP), America Makes - the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. For additional information, visit the NCDMM at www.ncdmm.org.

About the Swanson School of Engineering

The University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering is one of the oldest engineering programs in the United States and is consistently ranked among the top 50 engineering programs nationally. The Swanson School has excelled in basic and applied research during the past decade and is on the forefront of 21st century technology including sustainability, energy systems, bioengineering, micro- and nanosystems, computational modeling, and advanced materials development. Approximately 120 faculty members serve more than 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students and Ph.D. candidates in six departments, including Bioengineering, Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Materials Science.