As members of Carnegie Mellon University’s NextManufacturing Center , Kate Whitefoot and Levent Burak Kara are using additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, to reimagine what is possible when creating component parts.
"What parts consolidation allows us to do is monolithically make components that would normally have to be assembled together," said Whitefoot, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy. "This can substantially reduce the costs associated with making those parts, and also potentially allow us significant weight savings. So this is something that manufacturers are really interested in, particularly in industries like aerospace and automotive."
By consolidating multiple different sized parts into one part, Whitefoot can decrease the number of fasteners, remove mating surfaces associated with the parts, and monolithically print these parts. Under certain conditions, this can make them stronger than multiple parts that were, for example, welded together.
By redesigning the geometry of the parts to further reduce weight, Whitefoot’s research could revolutionize many industrial sectors - particularly aerospace and automotive. When part consolidation is leveraged to bring down the production costs associated with the process, additive manufacturing becomes more cost competitive with more traditional manufacturing methods. By consolidating parts, Whitefoot and Kara are not only reducing production cost and weight savings, but also significantly decreasing the time spent printing the build.
One reason why this is so attractive in the aerospace sector is because pounds directly translate into fuel use throughout aircrafts’ lifetimes. Every ounce saved by optimizing a part’s size and weight can help offset that fuel use, thereby reducing costs and environmental impacts.
"If we can use these methods to significantly reduce production costs, then many more industries would be able to adopt additive and then take advantage of the performance benefits that it can bring," Whitefoot said, "which includes opening up the design space and potentially causing significant weight savings, having huge cost and environmental benefits when it comes to applications where we translate into fuel use."
Being able to merge parts and produce them as one single monolithic part is a giant leap for parts manufacturing, but the researchers want to take it a step further - toward automatic redesign. Whitefoot is working with Kara to automate the optimization of metal part shapes created through additive manufacturing - minimizing the weight of these parts, as well as the cost of production.
"With the advance of additive manufacturing, now we can manufacture more complex geometries," said Kara, a professor of mechanical engineering. "One thing that makes additive topology optimization attractive is that we can now manufacture parts that were only theoretically possible before. Within the parts, complex internal geometries can be produced to minimize the overall mass of the part, while making sure that the structure can withstand all the external forces applied to it as well as a traditionally machined part could."
Whitefoot and Kara are developing methods that allow for the automatic optimization of parts. With this research, a manufacturer could upload a CAD file of a set of parts, and these methods would automatically gauge the optimal way this set of parts should be consolidated.
"Taking several parts and automatically being able to synthesize them into one uniquely geometric part may not have been feasible before," Kara added, "but with additive manufacturing, we can now not only optimize for the best combination of these parts, we can actually create the parts that were impossible to create with traditional machining methods."
Whitefoot and Kara are undergoing an initial one-year project with Boeing to demonstrate the feasibility of the methods they have developed. On the commercial market, it takes time to move from having a workable method in the research stage to actual commercial life ability - but the researchers forecast that this technology could be available commercially within a five-year time horizon.
"We’re doing this to help additive manufacturing engineers and designers streamline the process of creating more automated tools," Whitefoot said, "so additive design can really move from an art to a science."