Mihaela Vlasea, 2021 SME Top Influencer Award Winner, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo’s Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab (MSAM)
Mihaela Vlasea believes in collaboration. In fact, she thrives on it. An associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab (MSAM) in Ontario, Canada, Vlasea has spent nearly two decades straddling the fence between industry and the academic world, for the betterment of both.
“The technology spectrum behind additive manufacturing has become so broad that it can be very overwhelming for companies to understand the business case and how to navigate associated risks,” she said. “In addition, much of the equipment—particularly in the metal AM domain—requires significant capital investment. Manufacturers in Canada and elsewhere, therefore, are looking for academic partners with the equipment and skills needed to operate it, and who can help determine whether AM is a good fit for their applications and find answers to low technology readiness problems.”
Canada’s investment into research institutions such as the University of Waterloo serves to “de-risk” technology adoption, Vlasea noted. It allows her and others like her to gain a firm grasp of the technology, then leverage their knowledge to engage with industry.
“It gives us the bandwidth for pure science along with a mandate to support manufacturers. We give them opportunities to see the various processes. They can learn what might work for them and what won’t, and gain a better understanding of additive’s vast potential, all within an unbiased environment.”
Ironically, and is so often the case with AM, Vlasea never intended to become a 3D-printing expert. She’ll tell you that she wanted to enter the medical field. But given the university’s long history in additive manufacturing and its extensive research into binder-jetting and nano-scale printing processes, it was probably inevitable that she would become hooked.
All in a day’s work: a small sample of the parts produced by prof. Vlasea’s MSAM team and the prof. McLachlin’s OrthoTron team at the University of Waterloo. (Provided by University of Waterloo)
“Early in my studies, I was thinking about doing an internship in Waterloo’s additive manufacturing lab,” she said. “The professor there was talking with several orthopedic surgeons who were trying to develop the best design for 3D-printed load-bearing implants. I thought this was a really neat application that would give me the opportunity to learn more about the medical field, and seeing as my background was in mechatronics engineering, it was a good fit. I started there.”
The group she was working with decided to build a 3D printer that could build these bone-like structures from ceramic powder. Vlasea was so excited about the prospect that she decided to skip over her master’s degree and jump right into a Ph.D. For her thesis project, she began collaborating with the University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital to develop a binder-jetting machine from scratch.
She focused most of her efforts on mechatronic system development, control architecture, and machine design, and within two years was printing functional implants from ceramic powder. “That was a very exciting time,” Vlasea beamed. “Various clinicians were using my implants in animal studies. For a while there, I couldn’t print them fast enough to meet demand.”
Binder jetting has been around a long time. Ely Sachs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) patented the technology in 1993. MIT then licensed it to startup firm Z-Corp. in 1994 (later acquired by 3D Systems), followed by ExtrudeHone in 1995 (which went on to form ExOne, now part of Desktop Metal, a company co-founded by Ely Sachs in 2015).
By the time Vlasea began her research into 3D-printed implants, binder jetting was a mature technology—why, then, did she find it necessary to design and construct a special machine?
“We wanted to build parts that mimic the human bone structure, ones with variable density and random porous structures, not the latticed architecture that’s so common with AM today,” Vlasea explained.
“We also needed a way to embed fluid channels within the product, but without having to worry too much about the de-powder process,” she continued. “To accomplish that, we needed a binder-jetting system that supports different powder sizes and types in the same build, uses biocompatible binders that also work well with ceramic, and above all, provides very precise control over their deposition. This last part was especially important, because we found early on that every time a droplet falls—depending on its size and velocity—it would further compact or disturb the powder, often leading to unpredictable results. None of what we needed was available with the commercial equipment available at that time.”
Building a 3D printer from scratch was more than a wonderful learning experience; it also taught Vlasea how to work collaboratively, an experience she thoroughly enjoyed. Vlasea decided that wherever she went next, it would be in a hands-on environment where she could work closely with others, including those who would use the technology.
That opportunity presented itself soon after Vlasea earned her doctorate. In the spring of 2015, she took a position as a guest researcher for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Virginia. It was there that she leveraged her powder bed machine building experience to develop a similar piece of equipment—an open architecture, laser powder bed fusion test system.
“There were maybe three or four such research platforms in existence at that time,” she noted. “We had a lot of fun building it.”
The ability to 3D print these “variable porous architectures” has applications that extend well beyond biomedical, she explained. Electric vehicle batteries might benefit, as would solid-state rocket engines, where a porous catalyst could open the door to greater control over burn rates during the various launch phases. “That’s the magic of additive, in that you can develop concepts in one sector that translate quite well to sectors and applications that are completely different,” Vlasea said.
She and the team at the University of Waterloo’s MSAM continue to perform that magic each day. In one example, they collaborated with multinational mining giant Rio Tinto to develop a novel approach to producing atomized ferrous alloy feedstocks used in binder jet and laser powder bed fusion printers, greatly reducing costs. Canadian automotive suppliers are adopting the process and now use the resulting materials for large-scale additive manufacturing of gears and flanges, accelerating production and increasing flexibility.
Other examples include working with Boron Energy Solutions (BES), which produces small-scale microturbines that can work in northern communities and other remote locations that can’t access the power grid. The microturbines might also be deployed in military or emergency support applications.
“Together with BES, we explored ways to 3D print permanent magnets because, right now, the supply is entirely from China,” she said. “In addition, they printed rotors with unique designs to target improved electromechanical performance. So not only did we want to address the supply chain issues that started popping up during COVID, but we were looking for ways to produce a new generation of high-performance rotors.”
Vlasea’s team is also working closely with the Orthopaedic Mechatronics (OrthoTron) Lab, led by Professor Stewart McLachlin, to build AM adoption for spinal implants. Rather than using a single piece of metal as in current designs, the team is exploring ways to use holographic printing (in collaboration with researchers at the National Research Council of Canada) to add polymer in strategic areas that will dampen mechanical shock and “allow for degrees of freedom in spinal movement that would otherwise be unattainable,” according to Vlasea.
“These have all been really great fits with the university and MSAM in terms of developing supply chain relationships and working with manufacturers on real-world, end-use applications,” she enthused.
Working with manufacturers isn’t without its challenges, however, government support notwithstanding. Academia’s approach to solving thorny problems is often different than the “git-r-done” mentality of the industrial world. And while Vlasea and her colleagues at MSAM can present novel solutions, the manufacturer might not have the time or budget to implement them.
“One of the first questions we ask any potential industry partner is, ‘What’s your intended timeline?’” she said. “Different research domains are at different technology readiness levels, so we try to find solutions that match their project requirements while also addressing its urgency.
“Quite often, our response is, ‘Okay, if you want something tomorrow, this is what we can offer today.’ Other times, they’re willing to wait for a solution that might be six months out but will provide a better return on investment or give them a long-term competitive advantage. It’s critical in either example to have these conversations early on and ensure that everyone is on the same page,” Vlasea said.
“As engineers, we love to reach for the solutions we already have in our portfolio,” she concluded. “But unless you thoroughly understand the opportunities and challenges, it can be difficult to create long-term benefits, no matter how advanced the technology. That’s something I had to learn as a researcher—how do I translate what we know in the academic space to the applied space? In other words, how do we leverage all these wonderful discoveries in the most effective manner possible and deliver a positive impact for the company? That’s what’s most important in my work.”