UNT center is changing the face of manufacturing — developing advanced material components for industries ranging from biomedical and energy to defense and aerospace — with future-focused solutions and workforce training that will lead U.S. global competitiveness.
Text: AMY BRUNDEEN
Photography: MICHAEL CLEMENTS
Learn how CAAAM is training tomorrow's workforce.
Much of UNT’s Discovery Park has been under renovation throughout 2021, as the North Texas region’s largest research park has undergone various updates to make its interior as astounding as the innovative discoveries that transpire inside its walls. Some of the most inspiring research takes place in its Center for Agile and Adaptive Additive Manufacturing (CAAAM), which recently expanded its 5,000 square feet of existing lab space to include a 2,500-square-foot manufacturing facility.
But it’s more than just a renovation — it’s an investment in the future. After CAAAM launched as an official center in 2019, the Texas Legislature saw its potential to revolutionize important emergent research areas, responding with a $10 million appropriation that has helped fund the center’s nearly $2.21 million in new custom-built equipment. In 2021, the legislature doubled down, renewing CAAAM’s funding through 2023 with an additional $10 million — a reaffirmation of the center’s importance in positioning Texas as a leader in additive manufacturing innovation and workforce development.
With its facilities fully operational, CAAAM is focused on bringing in more researchers and launching new educational programs. More than 25 faculty and researchers — along with more than 20 graduate and undergraduate students from engineering, science, business and information science — are currently conducting interdisciplinary research through the center. CAAAM faculty members have been awarded nearly $2.4 million in externally funded research grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and have applied for research proposals totaling nearly $17.5 million.
“We are poised to pave the way forward for the future of manufacturing success and to address acute shortages in the manufacturing workforce,” Narendra Dahotre, associate vice president of CAAAM, says.
One key new piece of technology in CAAAM is the MELD, which can print much faster and produce very large components — but it uses metal bars, not powders like the powder-bed fusion equipment that researchers have been using for several years. Researchers in UNT’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Processes Institute are using CAAAM to design new alloys and research how the process affects existing materials. 3D printing has opened up whole areas of innovation due to the ability to build one-piece components with advanced materials. The technology at CAAAM can print objects from advanced metals, ceramics and composites with extremely complex geometry. Using CAAAM facilities, UNT researchers are building prototypes of next-generation sensors and antennas that would be difficult — if not impossible — to manufacture with traditional methods.
Hector Siller, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is working to develop medical implants and drones.
“These are two dissimilar fields,” he says. “But what they have in common is that they require the use of lightweight structures that can only be made by additive manufacturing.”
Wonbong Choi, professor of materials science and engineering, and Yijie Jiang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, are developing hybrid composite materials with embedded sensors for autonomous vehicles and wearable devices. Choi and Ifana Mahbub, assistant professor of electrical engineering, will print wireless sensors and interfaces for unmanned aerial vehicles and antennas for wireless drone charging. Mahbub also will use CAAAM facilities to fabricate prototypes of implants that will be used in the brains of rodents for medical research and wearable devices to detect falls in older adults.
“3D printing makes it cheaper and faster, and we can do quality control,” Mahbub says.
Looking to further leverage UNT’s strengths, CAAAM researchers contacted Song Fu in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to help accelerate research efforts through data analytics. Researchers at CAAAM model the manufacturing process using UNT’s high-performance computing capabilities to run simulations. They send the data to Fu and his graduate students, who are using machine learning to examine different parameters in the manufacturing process to create computer models that can be used in a wide range of manufacturing applications, including aerospace.
Fu says their results will help manufacturers down the road determine what materials to use without having to do their own simulations.
“We’re working to improve the speed, feasibility and accuracy to allow additive manufacturing to be implemented in more industry settings — making it more agile and adaptive,” Fu says.
While additive manufacturing has many advantages — the ability to manufacture one-off designs, use advanced materials, manufacture without waste and create one-piece parts with almost limitless possibilities of complex design — much needs to be re-envisioned, such as the supply chain process.
And experts in UNT’s Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research are helping to find solutions. Ph.D. candidate Himali Patil and assistant professor Suman Niranjan in the Department of Logistics and Operations Management are studying the logistics of additive manufacturing spare parts, from automotive to appliances. In the not-too-distant future, service or repair companies could actually print small spare parts in their service vehicles or locally, as long as they have the designs. Patil is collecting data from manufacturers to look at what additive manufacturing of metal parts will be practical, feasible and economically viable.
“Additive manufacturing of spare parts could be a revolution,” says Arunachalam Narayanan, associate professor of infor-mation technology and decision sciences. “It’s not that the technology is not good. It’s just that people have not studied it, and there’s not enough trust in the process. CAAAM is helping to understand these things so industry can move forward.”
Additive manufacturing is still coming of age, but the team assembled at CAAAM is playing a critical role in its development and future success.
“We have assembled an incredibly efficient group of innovative people,” Dahotre says. “At UNT, we are ahead of the times and contributing as leaders of this new technological revolution.”