Lab name: The W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation

Director: Ryan Wicker. Editor-in-Chief of Additive Manufacturing

Location: Department of Mechanical Engineering, The University of Texas at El Paso


A lab where ideas take shape

Turning ideas into three dimensions is the aim of a unique laboratory at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation can fabricate three-dimensional objects from surgical models to tissue engineering scaffolds to product prototypes. Using state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing technology, the lab offers medical professionals, manufacturers, and researchers the best in rapid design and fabrication.

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Mesh structure produced using electron beam melting technology (EBM). Courtesy of the Keck Center.
Mesh structure produced using electron beam melting technology (EBM). Courtesy of the Keck Center.

Materials Today spoke to Director, Prof Ryan Wicker, to find out more about this innovative center...

How long has the group been running?

The Keck Center was founded in 2000.  Since its inception, it has expanded to over 13,000 sq. ft. (1,200 sq. m.) of research space.

How large is the group?

The Keck Center has three full-time faculty (Chiyen Kim, Eric MacDonald, and Corey Shemelya), six full-time staff (including a business manager, research manager, and mechanical engineers), two research faculty, and more than 60 student researchers. The group also has affiliated faculty in the Departments of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Metallurgical & Materials Engineering, Industrial Manufacturing & Systems Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering.

What are the major themes of research in the lab?

For 3D-printed end-use products to be profoundly meaningful, the manufacturing technology must be able to enhance devices with additional features offering electronic, electromechanical, electromagnetic, thermodynamic, optical, biological, chemical and pharmacological functions.  

Since 2004, the Keck Center has been focusing on embedding electronic components and electrical interconnects into 3D printed structures by either interrupting the manufacturing process or inserting electronic components after the structure has been completed.  More recently, the lab has been developing a single hybrid non-assembly process – known as Multi3D Manufacturing – that can 3D print devices with multifunctional properties (antennas, electronics, thermal management, propulsion, sensors, etc.  UTEP’s Keck Center focuses on enhancing additive manufacturing (AM) with additional complementary technologies to enable printing multi-functional objects.  For instance, a plastic wing is printed with an embedded wire that acts both as an antenna and composite material improving the mechanical strength; or with fluidic channels embedded within the walls of a structure which provides support and protection.

UTEP is at the forefront of materials development and closed loop control in electron beam melting (EBM) of metals (Fig. 1) and has made significant recent investments in binder jetting for a wide range of applications.  Binder jetting involves selectively ink-jetting a binder into a layer of powder feedstock.  Additional powder material is then dispensed evenly in a layer by a rake or roller mechanism and the process eventually creates a complete object.  Binder jetting provides good resolution with inkjet technology but allows for a wide range of materials (glass, metals, ceramics even electromagnetically interesting materials) to be used, providing design freedom.

3D printed motor produced using fused deposition modeling via stop-n-go manufacturing. Courtesy of the Keck Center.
3D printed motor produced using fused deposition modeling via stop-n-go manufacturing. Courtesy of the Keck Center.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

At the Keck Center, our ultimate goal has been to graduate 3D printing onto the manufacture end-use products rather than the original purpose of the technology, which is to provide prototypes.

What has been your highest impact/most influential work?

With many faculty and research engineers, many projects can be considered consequential. But our most well-known work ranges from six-sided 3D printed electronic gaming die, 3D printed motors (Fig. 2), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to materials development for Electron Beam Melting.  We expect that our latest work in binder jetting will enable novel applications in a diverse areas.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

The Keck Center has combined facilities for advanced manufacturing, metrology and reverse engineering, materials characterization and testing, synthetic and analytical chemistry, and cell culture.  The wide range of equipment found in the lab includes facilities for: electron beam melting, fused deposition modeling, stereolithography and micro-stereolithography, selective laser sintering, 3D printing, desktop 3D printing, 3D color printing, twin screw extruding/compounding, and a grinder for recycling polymers.

What is your favorite piece of kit/equipment?

We focus our multi-functionality research on material extrusion systems (Stratasys Fortus systems primarily), but we have also worked with stereolithography and binder jetting for this purpose.  Our metals efforts have been confined to electron beam melting, but we are in the process of acquiring lasers systems for metals as well.

What is the key to running a successful lab?

The key to running a successful lab is a diverse interdisciplinary research.  The Keck Center consists of students, faculty, and staff from different engineering fields, including mechanical, electrical, metallurgical, and biomedical – all sharing ideas, experience, and points of view.  In addition, all students are trained in the operation of expensive, state-of-the-art equipment by experienced staff with amazing expertise.  Furthermore, staff and post docs are available to supervise and mentor the students, augmenting the interaction between students and professors.

How do you plan to develop the lab in the future?

We have established several research focus areas as a roadmap for the Keck Center.  These are: printing multifunctionality; stop-n-go manufacturing; process monitoring and control for improved quality and for qualification; material development and characterization; benchmarking and training.