SRU researchers exploring low-cost, additive manufacturing process


Professor and student working with a robotic arm

From left, Jheng-Wun Su, a Slippery Rock University assistant professor of physics and engineering, works with Joshua Salada, a senior mechanical engineering major, in SRU’s 3D Printing Lab on a 3D belt printer.

May 27, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — There are many ways to ease the ongoing stress to the world's supply chain, and one way is by developing better manufacturing techniques, especially ones that can be used by small businesses. A faculty-student research team at Slippery Rock University is working on a project using a conveyor belt 3D printer in a process known as additive manufacturing.

Using computer-aided-design software and a 3D printer, the additive manufacturing process deposits layers of materials in precise geometric shapes to create an object, rather than traditional means of subtractive manufacturing, such as metal cutting, wood carving or plastic shaping.

"Additive manufacturing is popular right now but there are some drawbacks if you want to have mass production," said Jheng-Wun Su, an SRU assistant professor of physics and engineering. "3D printers are expensive and there's still manual labor required, such as removing and sorting the parts. We want to make the whole manufacturing process more efficient and automated."

Su is mentoring Joshua Salada, a senior mechanical engineering major from Brockway, on a research project to develop an autonomous, low-cost additive manufacturing production line that can be scaled for small companies. Funding by a $1,500 SRU Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities grant, the project involves the purchase of a Creality CR-10 3D belt printer. There's an existing belt printer among the 13 other 3D printers in SRU's 3D Printing Lab in the Vincent Science Center, but Salada will be using the new one with a setup that includes an attached robotic arm for removing and sorting the product as it progresses on a conveyor belt.

"This protect is about saving people time," Salada said. "You just go to your computer, press start, walk away and come back later with your parts sorted or ready to be shipped. It's also about rapid prototyping, where you can keep the process in-house. (If you're a small business), you can make things and test them for strength, durability and size, instead of going to someone else to have them manufacture parts for you."

Throughout the summer, Salada will be working in SRU's 3D Printing Lab using a WLKATA Mirobot robotic arm to communicate with a 3D belt printer using sensors to ultimately create the most efficient, automated manufacturing process. An example would be developing a process to create as many plastic nuts and screws as possible, and also sorting them based on different variables such as color.

"The future of automation is how much you can make and how much variety you can (achieve)," Salada said. "There's always been an inverse relationship between variety and quantity. If you have more quantity, you have less variety. If you have more variety, you have less quantity. We're trying to fix that problem and (help manufacture with) high quantity, high variety and still have (products) sorted."

Cameron Constantine, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Pittsburgh, will also work on the project as a research assistant on the project.

"This is a perfect example of creating something that is very similar to what's being used in the big industrial world, but having it accessible to an everyday person," said Constantine, who also works in the 3D Printing Lab at SRU. "We're not just printing stuff for people; we're inviting them to come in here and learn how the 3D modeling process works."

"It all comes down to materials when you're doing additive manufacturing," Salada said. "This is not using steel but even with metals there are limitations with how they are layered. This type of additive manufacturing is not the end-all and be-all of manufacturing, but it can solve a lot of problems and save a lot of time."

The research process will also benefit Salada.

"This is great experience for me," Salada said. "I've had classes (at SRU) in mechatronics where I learned how to code, how electronics and sensors work, and how to make machines work, but this project is important because I can learn how to implement things for the real world."

More information about the engineering programs at SRU is available on the department's webpage. More information about the Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities grant and other internal research funding opportunities at SRU is available on the Grants, Research and Sponsored Programs Office webpage.

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