Got a great idea? The local university might be the place to give it legs. Such was the case with insulin in 1921, when Dr. Frederick Banting and medical student Charles Best of the University of Toronto experimented with secretions from the pancreatic islets of Langerhans in dogs. Their work has since saved the lives of many millions of people.
Checking out at the grocery store would be far more laborious had Bernard Silver, a graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology, not teamed up with classmate Norman Joseph Woodland in 1948 to develop the barcode. Other examples of universities being a hotbed of collaborative innovation led to everything from Vitamin C, FM radio and UNIX to internet search algorithms and Facebook.
Here’s another innovation story, one that culminates with an invention that helped launch an industry. While attending the University of Texas at Austin in the mid-1980s, graduate student Carl Deckard came up with a novel idea: using a laser to fuse tiny bits of plastic powder, progressively building three-dimensional objects one layer at a time. Sound familiar?
Deckard went on to pursue the concept for his doctoral research, and under the guidance of his academic advisor, Joe Beaman, PhD, developed what soon became known as selective laser sintering (SLS). Realizing its commercial potential, the two filed for patents, sought funding and founded a company named Nova Automation, which later became DTM Corp. (now part of 3D Systems Inc.).
Deckard died shortly before Christmas of 2019 at 58, but Beaman is still with us. In fact, he mentors others at the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering, part of the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT Austin. He misses his friend and one-time business partner, but the work continues.
“I enjoyed that period of my life quite a bit,” Beaman recalls. “Carl was certainly the driver for a lot of the stuff we did, and starting DTM was a really nice experience for both of us. It’s sad that he passed so soon, but I’m glad to have known him. He was a fun guy to be around.”
Though not currently pursuing another business startup (at least, none he’s willing to discuss), Beaman spends his time much as he did in the pre-Deckard days: mentoring, teaching and reviewing papers, almost all of it focused on additive manufacturing (AM). Ironically, it’s this last task—reading papers—that made him late for this article’s interview.
“I help lead the university’s annual Solid Freeform Fabrication Symposium, part of which requires going through all the manuscripts presented for peer review,” he says. “But we had so many submissions this year that I was buried with all the reading and was desperately trying to find a way to expedite the process,” he laughs. “So, I wrote an algorithm to help rank and sort the papers for distribution to the other members of the organizing committee. That’s why I was late for the meeting this morning.”
Note the term solid freeform fabrication (SFF). It’s an important one, and truth be told, Beaman would probably prefer it to the technology’s current monikers, 3D printing and AM.
Aside from the name of the symposium he spends so much time on each year, it’s also the title of Beaman’s noteworthy 2001 technical paper: “Solid Freeform Fabrication: An Historical Perspective.”
For AM history buffs, it’s a worthwhile read. In it, Beaman points out that 3D printing is far from a new technology. Early efforts include those of Joseph Blanther, a “subject of the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary,” who was granted a patent in 1892 for his method of creating molds for topographical relief maps. Three decades earlier, Parisian photographer Francois Willeme received a patent for what amounts to as the additive manufacturing of three-dimensional “photosculptures.”
Many others have made noteworthy contributions since then, including Nakagawa, Munz, Morioka and Ciraud. The names that history will most remember, though, are Hull, Crump, Deckard and Beaman, who within a few short years of one another developed three complementary SFF technologies and thereby revolutionized the manufacturing industry.
Today, Beaman continues to explore AM, wherever it takes him. “I think ceramic printing is going to be the next big thing,” he declares. “Unfortunately, ceramics are brittle and tend to crack if you don’t fire the green parts very slowly, as in many hours. As it turns out, though, applying a high voltage across the part—a process called flash sintering—tends to mitigate this problem. And better yet, it can turn those hours into minutes or even seconds.”
Beaman didn’t discover the flash sintering phenomenon, but as with so many other 3D-printing developments, he and his students are attempting to leverage what others have done. They’ve modified an SLS machine for ceramic printing and equipped it with a 3000 volts alternating current power supply, which they use to “flash” the workpiece after each layer, curing it instantly. The results so far have been unpredictable, he notes, yet promising.
“We’re at roughly the same stage Carl and I were in 1987,” Beaman adds. “I don’t know if this project will amount to anything. But if it does, it will not only mean the ability to print ceramic parts very quickly, but doing so without the need for a polymer binder, as with current ceramic processes. It could be a big breakthrough.”
When asked about some of the biggest challenges Beaman and Deckard faced during those early days, the answer came as no surprise—finding the right material. Back then, however, polymer powders were a bit of a novelty, so Beaman had to leverage a novel source—his father.
“My dad was a career military man,” says Beaman. “He managed the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant in Marshall, Texas, which produced rockets for the military. I learned that they were using nylon powder to coat certain critical areas, and as it turned out, the thermal properties were just right for laser sintering. It’s pretty much the same nylon used today in printers everywhere.”
Other challenges included deposition of the raw material—Deckard’s prototype SLS machine didn’t have a counter-rotating roller, and instead relied on a head that “sprinkled” powder onto the print bed. Nor did it have a heated build chamber, an innovation that took several months to develop but eliminated the chronic curling they experienced. “We built some really crappy parts before that,” Beaman laughs.
Beaman, who published and presented his original work at NAMRC in 1987, went on to share one of his pet peeves of 3D printing. “If you’ve read any of my stuff, you know that I hate support structures, and that includes the support structures needed when machining parts—the jigs and fixtures—that are responsible for much of the manufacturing cost and lead time. Getting rid of all that was one of our goals.”
As any AM practitioner knows, Beaman and Decker hit a home run—SLS is one of the few processes that doesn’t require any support structures, relying instead on the surrounding material to keep parts in place and eliminate droop during printing. Unfortunately, they were less successful with metal, a failure that plagues him to this day. “We printed a lot of metal parts back then but just couldn’t get around the support problem,” he says. “I still think it’s possible, but some of our funding came from B.F. Goodrich... its focus was on polymers, so that’s the direction we went.”
After all these years, Beaman is still eager to talk about AM-related projects, from multi-material printing and automotive-level part production to pharmaceuticals and human bone replacement. He’s been at it longer than most anyone in the industry, with no sign of letting up.
“I’m right on the cusp of things a lot of the time, and even though there are things we’re working on that might not go anywhere, some will. Of course, that’s no different than when Carl was a graduate student here, but that’s okay. I’m pretty happy.”