Advanced manufacturing includes the development of sophisticated processes and technologies that can't easily be replicated. So what are some of the potential game-changing developments taking place in university research departments and labs? In addition to the well-publicized advancements involving nanotechnology, progress also is occurring in the areas of direct digital fabrication and micromanufacturing, says Shreyes Melkote, engineering professor and interim director of Georgia Tech's Manufacturing Research Center.
Direct-digital manufacturing is the follow-up to the early rapid prototyping technologies that are commonplace today, says Melkote. Thus far, rapid prototyping has been limited to polymer or plastic parts for design verification purposes. "But today the logical extension of that is to make metal parts and perhaps ceramic parts using the same ideas, which is a layered manufacturing type of approach, and use them as functional parts," Melkote says. The term "direct digital" refers to the ability to create a part from CAD software and transmit the design information directly to a machine that can construct a 3-D part out of a metallic material. There are manufacturers providing equipment capable of direct digital manufacturing, but Melkote says wide-scale use of the process is not occurring at this time. The aerospace and defense industries are driving developments in direct-digital manufacturing, says Melkote.
Micromanufacturing involves creating micro features, often on the submicron scale, using tiny machine tools for specialty applications, says Steven Danyluk, who recently stepped down as the Manufacturing Research Center's director. Micromanufacturing could be used for biological implants or applications such as a lab-on-a-chip where people are using polymer substrates with microfluidic channels in them. Micromanufacturing also could be used to manufacture components for small medical devices, such as hearing aids, Danyluk says.
Nanomanufacturing: The National Nanomanufacturing Network defines nanomanufacturing as "the controllable manipulation of materials structures, components, devices, and systems at the nanoscale (1 to 100 nanometers) in one, two, and three dimensions for large-scale reproducibility of value-added components and devices." Much like micromanufacturing, the challenge, says Danyluk, is how to use nano concepts, particles and geometries to do macro things and how to limit the amount of impurities in the applications.