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Additive Manufacturing's New Destination

New Destination

How Auburn turned Alabama into the nation's additive manufacturing capital

Last week was a busy one in America's new additive manufacturing capital.

On Monday, nearly 250 additive manufacturing professionals from Canada to Singapore descended on Auburn for the ASTM International Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence's first-ever workshop to address the growing need for additive manufacturing quality and reliability in major industries such as aerospace, defense, medical and automotive.

The workshop's 12 interactive sessions focused on key steps in the additive value chain, and immediately preceded the biannual four-day meeting of ASTM International's Committee on Additive Manufacturing Technologies (F42) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) TC 261.

Each event was held at the Auburn Marriott Opelika Resort & Spa at Grand National in Opelika, Alabama.The location might surprise some. To Nima Shamsaei, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and director of Auburn University's National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence (NCAME), it makes perfect sense.

"Manufacturing experts keep asking me 'how did Alabama become a leader in additive manufacturing?'" Shamsaei said.

It's an understandable question with an easy answer: Auburn.

Thanks to Auburn University's decisive investments, including the hiring of experts such as Shamsaei and its $18 million renovation of the Gavin Engineering Research Laboratory, the state has quickly become an international hub for the cutting-edge technology.

Its strategic partnerships with additive manufacturing's heavy hitters haven't hurt, either. These partnerships have resulted in significant research funding from government agencies like NIST, NASA, NSF, FAA, and the U.S. Navy, along with industry collaborators like Delta Airlines.

In late 2017, the university established NCAME through a public-private partnership with NASA, a move that was more than enough to draw ASTM International's attention. Last spring, when it was time for the global standards developer to establish its first Center of Excellence for additive manufacturing, NCAME was an easy choice for a founding partner.

ASTM also selected manufacturing technology innovator EWI and the U.K.-based Manufacturing Technology Centre as Center of Excellence partners, and later added the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) and Singapore's National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (NAMIC) in order to add 3-D printed polymers and composites to its expertise portfolio and enlarge its global footprint.

"Additive manufacturing is a rapidly evolving field and it is crucial to join forces to accelerate innovation in this area," said Christopher B. Roberts, dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. "It's satisfying to see more and more industry leaders like ASTM International take notice of Auburn's commitment to additive manufacturing. We're all in, and it shows."

NCAME is already collaborating with more than 70 partners from government, academia, and industry, including local Auburn manufacturer GE Aviation, which in 2017 gifted the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering a $250,000 Concept Laser MLAB 100R metal printer after selecting Auburn University as one of just eight participants - out of more than 250 applicants - in its GE Additive Education Center.

Last week, the jet engine maker announced plans to invest an additional $50 million into the production plant it opened just down the road from Auburn University in 2015, the aerospace industry's first site for additive manufacturing mass production.

A few days later, the U.S. Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command, Aviation and Missile Center also cited Auburn University as a strategic partner in additive manufacturing initiatives after touring NCAME's additive manufacturing facilities.

Next came the news that NASA had awarded NCAME a $5.2 million contract to develop additive manufacturing processes and techniques for improving the performance of liquid rocket engines.

The research and development covered under the new contract is part of NASA's Rapid Analysis and Manufacturing Propulsion Technology (RAMPT) project, which focuses on evolving light-weight, large-scale novel and additive manufacturing techniques for the development and manufacturing of regeneratively-cooled thrust chamber assemblies for liquid rocket engines.

"Many of our peers want to know why they're hearing about Auburn's additive program every few weeks," Shamsaei said.

Last week, they got to see why for themselves.

"Events such as this workshop and ASTM/ISO Committee Meetings that we host here at Auburn just add to our visibility in the field," Shamsaei said. "It's a very competitive field, and many organizations and universities are trying to be players. It is rewarding to see Auburn become established as one of the world's leaders."