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From Art to Part

SMU Center is Pioneering the Future of Manufacturing

By Ellen D. Mayou

Radovan Kovacevic
As director of the SMU Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing, Radovan Kovacevic heads a research team that is regarded as one of the world’s leaders in research on rapid prototyping.

Every antique car buff knows the difficulty of obtaining replacement parts. But imagine if antique car owners could go to their local auto parts store, ask for any part they needed for their 1955 Chevy or 1964 Mustang, and have it built in front of their eyes in fewer than 30 minutes on a machine that looks like a three-dimensional printer.

Radovan Kovacevic, the Herman Brown Professor of Materials and Manufacturing Processes in the SMU School of Engineering, is working toward such a goal.

Kovacevic directs the SMU Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing (RCAM). Since its establishment in 1999, the center has become regarded as one of the world's leaders in research on rapid prototyping. In rapid prototyping, also known as solid free-form fabrication, parts are designed on a computer and the digital data is fed into a machine that builds them one layer at a time.

Rapid prototyping can significantly decrease the time between initial concept and fabrication, thus reducing costs for manufacturers and bringing products to consumers faster.

The center also supports a variety of research and development activities in laser materials processing, waterjet and abrasive waterjet materials processing, welding, sensing, control, and numerical simulation of manufacturing processes and systems.

The center has received more than $2.1 million in grant money from government and state agencies, as well as industry partners. Nearly 200 engineers visit the center each year to attend workshops and seminars on the latest manufacturing techniques. The center also attracts graduate students from around the world.

"RCAM's accomplishments are an outstanding example of research excellence and productivity at SMU," says U. Narayan Bhat, dean of research and graduate studies.

Kovacevic has more than 30 years of research and teaching experience in manufacturing processes and materials science. A native of Yugoslavia, he received his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Belgrade and his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Montenegro. He served on the faculty at the University of Montenegro for 16 years, and later held faculty positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Syracuse University, and the University of Kentucky. Kovacevic holds three U.S. patents and 14 invention disclosures and has authored and co-authored more than 330 technical papers and five books. SMU recruited him in 1997 with the lure of starting a new program in a larger city with more industry.

Today, Kovacevic leads the largest research team at SMU, which consists of two faculty members, 10 Ph.D. candidates, a postdoctoral researcher, a Master's degree student, and a research engineer. Most of his Ph.D. students have earned one doctorate before they even join the research team.

The center is housed in a 7,000-square-foot facility in Richardson, Texas, that is widely praised for being one of the best university-based facilities in the country for conducting research in cutting-edge technologies. It comprises six laboratories, each focusing on a specific problem or opportunity related to manufacturing. One laboratory, for example, has developed a computer-controlled feeder that can mix up to four different metallic powders and make complex alloys by synthesizing them with a high-powered laser beam.

"These powder feeders allow us to deposit the right quantity of material to the right place at the right time for layer-based manufacturing," Kovacevic says. The SMU team is only the second in the country to develop such a system for making what is known as functional gradient material by laser-based additive manufacturing. Such material is able to withstand extremely harsh environments and has applications for numerous industries, including aerospace, mining, nuclear power, automotive, and biomedical.

Another laboratory has developed a technique based on variable polarity plasma arc welding for materials such as aluminum that are traditionally difficult to weld. The laboratory also is developing a real-time sensing and control technique for monitoring the quality of welds during welding, which would improve quality control for such industries as aircraft and aerospace.

Another laboratory focuses on sensing and controlling different manufacturing processes, with the goal of eliminating human involvement. "We want to develop a fully automated system that will provide a seamless flow of information from design to production," Kovacevic says. This laboratory also is developing an on-line tool condition monitoring system that could be used during welding of aluminum alloys by friction stir welding.

Currently, the laboratories are working together to develop a system that will combine several processes and devices to manufacture parts from computer files, either onsite or in remote locations. The system will be able to perform two additive operations such as depositing metal by means of welding or a laser-based additive process, conduct subtractive operations such as milling and drilling, perform "reverse engineering" to recreate parts, and conduct post-processing inspection of the parts that are created.

Kovacevic has called his proposed system the Multi-Fabrication System for Rapid Manufacturing and Repair, or MultiFab™ system. It would incorporate six invention disclosures that Kovacevic and his team have submitted for patents.

"Machines being built today are still single function," Kovacevic says. "Rather than use single-purpose machines, manufacturers could use a MultiFab™ machine and make almost any part economically. This would result in greater machine utilization and, in turn, would be more profitable to the manufacturer."

A MultiFab™ machine would be particularly valuable to the aviation, aerospace, and defense industries, Kovacevic says. The defense industry, for example, has shown a strong interest in having a "mobile part hospital" that could produce or repair a variety of parts in different environments, such as on the battlefield or in submarines.

"A system such as this could help strengthen the country's military readiness," Kovacevic says.

A company in Waco, Texas, has expressed an interest in marketing the MultiFab™ machine.

The Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing also provides expertise to local industries. Halliburton Energy Services asked Kovacevic and his team to help it find the best combination of materials to make its downhole tools more erosion-resistant. The center is researching the best combination of metal powders that can be applied in a thin layer over the tools, and then testing the coatings under an abrasive waterjet to simulate the harsh environments encountered during the stimulation of oil and gas wells.

"SMU's capability in this area of manufacturing will allow us to expand the capabilities of our tools, making energy production more efficient and economical," says Syed Hamid, who manages the Research Department at Halliburton Energy Services.

Research projects at the center have provided opportunities for more than 50 students – including 15 postdoctoral, 19 Ph.D., and five graduate – to participate.

Most doctoral and postdoctoral students who come to work at the center go into industry after gaining additional experience in such areas as materials science, controls, sensing, and modeling, Kovacevic says.

Four SMU undergraduate students have participated in research at the center through the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Six Texas high school teachers also have participated in research through the NSF's Research Experience for Teachers in Science and Math program and a program sponsored by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

"The center is a wonderful example of bringing relevance to the academic environment through groundbreaking engineering research," says Joseph J. Beaman Jr., chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Beaman is one of several academic partners who have collaborated with the center on research projects and proposals. Others include Columbia University and the University of Nebraska.

Advancements pioneered at the center are incorporated into engineering courses taught at SMU, such as a graduate course in nontraditional manufacturing processes and an undergraduate course in manufacturing processes.

In 2004 the center and the SMU School of Engineering will host a conference for about 500 NSF grant recipients in the areas of design, manufacturing, and industrial engineering.

"The center is bringing well-deserved recognition to SMU and the School of Engineering," says Dean Stephen Szygenda. "It is a unique operation that combines academia, industry, and government toward a common goal of relevant and excellent research."

For more information: www.engr.smu.edu/rcam/

Anatomy of a Mobile Part Hospital
diagram of a mobile part hospital
This diagram shows how a MultiFab™ system being developed at SMU's Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing could custom-make almost any part economically. Such a system could serve as a "mobile part hospital" for the military that could produce or repair a variety of parts in different environments. The system incorporates six invention disclosures that have been submitted for patents.

Center Offers Corporate Memberships

Corporations can benefit from research conducted at the Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing by becoming corporate members of the center.

Membership entitles corporations to full access to the center's unique facilities and expertise and provides an opportunity to recruit highly qualified graduate students.

Annual membership fees are based on company size, and can be applied toward research projects that will benefit individual or groups of companies.

"With many companies cutting research and development funding, it is more important than ever for universities to work closely with industry to address key research and development issues in manufacturing technology," says Radovan Kovacevic, director of the center.

The center can leverage industry support to gain additional funding from state and government agencies, Kovacevic says.

Local companies that have signed on include Halliburton Energy Services. For more information on corporate membership, call 214-768-4865.