Research Will Advance 3D Printing Technology in the Country
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Additive manufacturing — more commonly known as 3D printing — is one of the fastest-growing and most technologically advanced industries on the planet. Additive manufacturing is now expanding beyond printing mechanical objects to producing functional electronics. Its potential to impact our daily lives and our world is practically limitless, from smart appliances and product packaging that “talk” to users to wearable electronics that monitor a person’s health and diagnose diseases. In the defense industry, these applications include 3D-printed components for aircraft, guided missiles and radar systems.
Thanks to a $1 million grant from a federally funded program and a unique partnership between global defense giant Raytheon Co. and UMass Lowell, researchers at the Raytheon-UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI) are helping bring the future of 3D-printed flexible electronics one step closer to reality.
The two organizations, in collaboration with General Electric, ANSYS and the University of Wisconsin, are one of nine teams from across the United States that recently won awards worth a total of $8 million from America Makes, an initiative of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. America Makes aims to develop, innovate and accelerate additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies to increase the nation’s global competitiveness in what is currently a $16 billion market.
Raytheon and RURI’s multidisciplinary project will help optimize and streamline the design process and make it easier for engineers and technicians to develop and fabricate customized engineering products through 3D printing.
Exciting Things Are Happening
RURI is based on the fourth floor of the Mark and Elisia Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center, an $80 million state-of-the-art research facility on North Campus that is also home to the university’s Printed Electronics Research Collaborative (PERC). Christopher McCarroll, Ph.D., of Raytheon and Prof. Craig Armiento of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, co-direct the institute.
Since RURI’s inauguration in October 2014, a number of developments have taken place, including the following:
- In January, PERC was formally launched with Raytheon as a founding member of the collaborative and Armiento as director. PERC members now include seven other companies — BAE Systems, Rogers Corp., SI2 Technologies, Triton Systems, Inc., Microchem Corp., Creative Materials Inc. and FLEXcon Co. — and its membership is expected to continue to grow in the coming months.
- In June, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) honored RURI with the 2015 Next Century Award, which recognizes the institute’s contribution to fundamentally influencing the course of economic development in the region.
- RURI has applied for a patent for a new ferroelectric ink that Profs. Armiento and Alkim Akyurtlu and Ph.D. student Mahdi Haghzadeh in electrical engineering have invented. The technology, which will enable them to fabricate tunable printed, flexible microwave communications systems, has attracted the attention of one of the PERC companies in commercializing the material. The team reported on their work at a conference in Prague, Czech Republic in July.
- Akyurtlu is also conducting research on frequency-selective surfaces, with the intention of creating electromagnetic “cloaking” technology that could render military personnel and hardware “invisible” to radar.
- RURI will add a new electrical and computer engineering faculty researcher in January. In addition, the institute has nine PERC-affiliated faculty members from various departments who will work on RURI/PERC projects.
- A total of 10 graduate and undergraduate students will join RURI this fall semester. RURI/PERC has already created employment opportunities for the students. For example, electrical engineering senior Elicia Harper and mechanical engineering junior James Benedict, who both had conducted research at RURI/PERC, are now interns at Raytheon. In addition, electrical engineering senior Stephen Kunitake is an intern at the defense firm and PERC member SI2 Technologies in Billerica. Harper and Kunitake are returning to campus in the fall to begin their graduate studies and Benedict will be starting his senior year.
- RURI is in the process of installing a Doppler radar system donated by Raytheon on the roof of Olsen Hall or the Saab Center that will provide a test bed for new weather-related research and development. Armiento and McCarroll plan to collaborate with Prof. Frank Colby of the Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department to train meteorology students on the use of the system. They are also exploring ways to expand the weather radar system to other UMass campuses to form a network.
“The university and Raytheon have been able to assemble a team of dedicated, talented and committed researchers, students and staff that was able to move things faster than what we had initially projected. And our pace has been significantly enhanced by the hiring of Denise Radkowski as technical program manager for printed electronics,” notes Armiento.
“RURI, and PERC, represent an opportunity for companies to get started in this field by drawing on the resources and expertise of the university, without investing in hiring their own staff or facilities,” he says.
Armiento likens them to a “startup” business with numerous stakeholders.
“We value our close relationship with Raytheon as a RURI partner in business and research. We also want to be responsive to the needs of our PERC member companies in a manner that is faster than most academic institutions — we need to work at ‘corporate speed,’ ” he says.
Armiento adds: “Ultimately, our top priority is the students. They represent our future workforce, and we need to ensure that they get the education, hands-on training and exposure to real-world challenges and applications needed to take on this new, emerging field of printed electronics.”