NASA’s recent award of $5.2 million to a public-private partnership led by researchers at Auburn University’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering is the latest in a series of developments driving additive manufacturing innovation. The journey underway at Auburn is a textbook example of how a vision can form the genesis of a collaborative, technology-based research initiative that is beginning to deliver tremendous returns for higher education, government and industry alike.
How did Auburn come to be an epicenter of additive manufacturing technology in such a short time?
Auburn’s additive manufacturing story—and NASA’s role in it—can best be described as an overnight success that has been years in the making.
Auburn Engineering has a storied history with NASA—in particular, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center—going back to the origins of NASA itself. That decades-old relationship has resulted in scores of Auburn Engineering graduates populating the halls and in leadership roles at NASA to this day and serves as the foundation for today’s additive manufacturing focus between NASA and Auburn.
Auburn’s emergence as a leader in additive manufacturing can be traced to research led by Tony Overfelt, a professor and the director of the Center for Industrialized Additive Manufacturing at Auburn back in 2015. GE Aviation had just made the decision to locate a major manufacturing site right next door in the City of Auburn, the aerospace industry’s first site to mass-produce jet engine components using 3D printing technologies. A key factor in GE’s site decision was proximity to Auburn’s pool of engineering talent, and Overfelt recognized the potential to build upon that opportunity. He turned to Christopher Roberts, dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, and the pair seized upon a shared vision to leverage the research already being conducted by Overfelt and his colleagues in additive manufacturing and began developing a plan to realize that vision.
Talent is Foremost
The first step in that plan was to identify and secure the talent needed to build a world-class program—a level of expertise that would expand Auburn’s initial research efforts and attract the scores of other faculty and graduate student researchers a top-tier technology development program requires for success.
That’s where Nima Shamsaei, a recognized expert in additive manufacturing research, came in. In late 2015, Auburn recruited Shamsaei and colleague Scott Thompson, and they brought additional funding for additive manufacturing research with them in 2016.
With additive manufacturing already a rapidly growing field, Roberts felt the expertise of these new faculty would be the perfect addition to help accelerate Auburn’s continued growth and drive the role of additive manufacturing at Auburn a step further.
Shamsaei put the opportunity into even more comprehensive terms.
“The collaborative nature of additive manufacturing at Auburn has been key to its rapid development, and we believe this technology can have a significant impact on the national economy,” he said. “Additive manufacturing is one of the means for our country to regain and retain its leadership for advanced manufacturing of high-value products. At the national level, it’s very important.”
Auburn has continued to grow this team of faculty and graduate student researchers focused on additive manufacturing, with particular emphasis on metal additive technology and the critical role structural integrity plays in progressing its development. Currently, more than 20 Auburn faculty are working in all aspects of additive manufacturing.
Another big part of Auburn’s vision to help drive the country to a position of additive manufacturing leadership was to expand the curriculum at Auburn—to broaden the student experience in the technologies and processes the additive industry would need as this technology is adopted and leveraged into commercial production.
New classes and curricula were developed in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, including a certificate program that offered students a unique head start in terms of professional development. Auburn Engineering graduates became recognized as much sought-after talent, with a steady flow of graduates securing positions at NASA and other leading commercial proponents of additive manufacturing, including GE Aviation just up the road.
Building the Foundation
As important as talent and expertise is, it isn’t enough without the resources necessary to bring that expertise and vision to fruition. We needed to expand our technology infrastructure to reach our goals, and quickly.
Part of the answer came in the form of an $18 million expansion already underway at the College of Engineering. Thanks to a $10.5 million donation from Carol Ann and Charles E. Gavin III, the college was able to renovate the former textile engineering building to include a showcase of additive manufacturing research and technology development unlike any other in the country.
Auburn also stepped up its commitment to additive manufacturing by investing more than $6 million of internal funds toward equipment and research infrastructure.
It secured an additional $6 million in grants for additive manufacturing research awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology. This expansion in equipment and infrastructure also included a $250,000 Concept Laser metal printer received from GE Additive after Auburn was selected as a participant in GE’s Additive Education Program.
Collaboration is Key
With a world-class facility under construction and the next generation of additive manufacturing equipment on the way, we began to ferret out ways our rapidly expanding additive expertise could support NASA’s growing needs.
While additive manufacturing’s unique ability to tackle complex geometries and deliver lighter-weight payloads fit the complex demands of long duration space flight perfectly, issues of structural integrity remain challenging, and the Auburn team of researchers began developing a portfolio of research projects designed to apply the underlying potential of additive manufacturing to key NASA initiatives.
Those efforts paid off in 2017 with NASA and Auburn forming the National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence (NCAME) at Auburn.
The center, which is directed by Shamsaei, makes its home in the newly renovated Gavin Engineering Research Laboratory. NCAME is pushing the boundaries of research to improve the performance of parts that are created using additive manufacturing.
As Roberts described the formation of NCAME at the time, the partnership makes perfect sense. “Auburn’s vision and focus on additive manufacturing research closely aligns with NASA’s strategy to partner with and incorporate innovations from universities and industry to accelerate technology advancement and to help NASA reach its space exploration vision,” he said.
John Vickers, NASA principal technologist for advanced manufacturing, echoed Roberts’ vision for the center.
“The advancements we are seeing in additive manufacturing technologies are truly amazing and will aid the development of more capable and lower-cost propulsion systems and spacecraft to benefit all of NASA’s science, engineering and spaceflight endeavors,” he said. “Auburn’s vision and focus on additive manufacturing research closely aligns with NASA’s strategy to partner with and incorporate innovations from universities and industry to accelerate technology advancement and to help us achieve our NASA space exploration missions.”
A key component of NCAME’s mission is to share research results with industry and government collaborators and respond to workforce development needs in the additive manufacturing industry. Today, NCAME is already collaborating with more than 75 industry and government partners to do just that.
Closing the Gap
This collaborative aspect of NCAME’s mission quickly illuminated a critical need in the additive manufacturing industry on a global scale.
As with all game-changing technologies, the development of widely accepted standards, protocols and commonly agreed upon nomenclature for additive manufacturing lagged the actual technology by years—perhaps even decades.
With the breadth and depth of additive techniques expanding exponentially across the globe, the path to progress threatened to become fractured. If additive manufacturing was to progress at the rapid pace NASA’s long duration spaceflight timeline required, something had to be done to close this gap.
Enter ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, the international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems and services.
With the announcement of NCAME in hand, NASA and Auburn turned their attention to ASTM’s call for proposals to establish its Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence. After receiving proposals from organizations across the globe, ASTM selected the Auburn/NASA NCAME partnership, EWI—the former Edison Welding Institute—and UK-based Manufacturing Technology Centre as the founding partners in the Center of Excellence.
“This game-changing collaboration will build a strong foundation for the future of additive manufacturing,” said Katharine Morgan, president of ASTM International. “The synergy among the partners—combined with the trailblazing work of ASTM’s additive manufacturing committee—will help fill industry gaps and accelerate innovation.”
The collaborative also includes the addition of two strategic partners: the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (NAMIC), a pan-national initiative in Singapore supported by Singapore’s National Research Foundation.
Collaboration and investments continue
In December of last year, America Makes, a national leader in additive manufacturing innovation, awarded ASTM International’s Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence $1.2 million for a project led by Shamsaei to help fill the gap in developing best practices for materials handling and utilization of selective laser melting.
Where We Stand
NASA recently awarded NCAME a $5.2 million contract to develop additive manufacturing processes and techniques for improving the performance of liquid rocket engines. The research and development covered under the new contract is part of NASA’s Rapid Analysis and Manufacturing Propulsion Technology (RAMPT) project, which focuses on evolving light-weight, large-scale novel and additive manufacturing techniques for the development and manufacturing of regeneratively-cooled thrust chamber assemblies for liquid rocket engines.
Where We’re Going
In short, the additive manufacturing work at Auburn continues at an even steeper trajectory.
- Auburn researchers and their partners in government and industry work to design, build and test geometrically challenging structures and components that could not be done via traditional, subtractive manufacturing methods. Reducing the parts count required to build components is one objective, as is lightweighting, especially for space exploration.
- One primary focus of our work is to conduct research on the structural integrity of materials and compounds—this is critical for aerospace and other applications where additive manufacturing engineers need to document and prove the structural integrity of “printed” vs. forged or otherwise constructed components.
- Professional development remains a focus. Additive manufacturing experts are in short supply. Employers need people who can “design and build” with additive manufacturing, and we continue to educate and train much sought-after engineering graduates at Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.
Looking back at how we got here, Shamsaei put it all into perspective following discussions with colleagues from across the globe during ASTM International’s biannual four-day meeting of its Committee on Additive Manufacturing Technologies in March:
“Many of our peers want to know why they’re hearing about Auburn’s additive program every few weeks,” he said. “Our vision, planning, investment, strategic partnerships and diligent work got us here. It’s a very competitive field, and many organizations and universities are trying to be players. It is rewarding to see Auburn become established as one of the world’s leaders.”