University of Oklahoma opens new Advanced Manufacturing Lab to support Military and Aerospace

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Inauguration of Sooner Advanced Manufacturing Lab
Inauguration of Sooner Advanced Manufacturing Lab/Source: University of Oklahoma

The University of Oklahoma (OU) has opened the Sooner Advanced Manufacturing Lab, which employs metal 3D printers and other technology to aid in the production of aircraft parts and research to support military and industrial aerospace partners, particularly in Oklahoma.

The 5,000-square-foot lab — formerly home to a pipe organ institute — held its official opening ceremony on Tuesday in a nondescript building next to a convenience store in north Norman. The lab serves as a collaborative space for faculty and students from the University of Oklahoma’s Gallogly College of Engineering and the Oklahoma Aerospace Defence Innovation Institute (OADII).

Sooner Advanced Manufacturing Lab

(Left to right) John Auld - Retired Air Force officer, Chris Billings - Research assistant engineering professor, Zahed Siddique - OU's engineering college's assistant dean for research and Yingtao Liu - chairman of the graduate programs in OU
(Left to right) John Auld – Retired Air Force officer, Chris Billings – Research assistant engineering professor, Zahed Siddique – OU’s engineering college’s assistant dean for research and Yingtao Liu – chairman of the graduate programs in OU/Source: University of Oklahoma

The Sooner advanced manufacturing lab is an OU hub for “additive manufacturing,” which is a computer-controlled process that deposits materials layer by layer to create three-dimensional objects. Although additive manufacturing can use any material, the 3D printers at the OU lab will specialise in titanium and stainless steel objects.

According to John Auld, a retired Air Force officer who’s the lab’s site director and the innovation institute’s project manager, “It’s a big step forward in capability. It’s integrating multiple departments from within OU. You have computer scientists, you’ve got industrial systems engineers, you have aerospace and mechanical engineers, electrical engineers — and that’s not the whole list. We’ll continue to see what grows as we move forward and the research opportunities out there as more folks get involved.”

“The idea for such a facility began about five years ago and received support from throughout the university. The whole university recognized how important additive manufacturing can be and the broader impacts it could bring to this entire community. We could not make this happen by ourselves.”

– Yingtao Liu, the chairman of the graduate programs in OU’s School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

The lab’s focal point is a pair of GE M2 Series 5 Metal 3D printers, one of which prints items in titanium and the other in stainless steel. According to Chris Billings, a research assistant engineering professor, the printers, which cost about $1.3 million each, are housed in a climate-controlled room within the lab and are outfitted with hundreds of sensors that would be impractical to use in a production environment. These sensors enable researchers to precisely determine an object’s required specifications and to meet the stringent requirements of the highly regulated military and aerospace industries.

Supporting Military and Aerospace

The lab also has cross-cutting equipment for testing parts, digital twin, CADD modelling, precision cutting and polishing, and other tasks.

Billings added, “We can mirror production, but our main focus is research. We have hundreds of sensors throughout, to find the best way to optimize production, whether that be safety, output or final part tolerance. We can figure out all of the issues that happen in production in additive manufacturing and then go to our partners, like the Air Force, and say, ‘We’ve done all this testing in a lab that’s very similar to yours, and here’s what you can take over to your lab and make it work.’”

According to Auld, this saves the lab’s partners both time and money. OU researchers, for example, can assist in reverse engineering and creating parts for old military aircraft for which original drawings or design specifications may no longer be available. According to him, this will allow those planes to remain in service for a longer period of time.

While much of the lab’s current work will focus on military applications — one of its primary partners is nearby Tinker Air Force Base — the technology developed in the lab could be used in other research areas, such as the energy or biomedical industries, according to Zahed Siddique, OU’s engineering college’s assistant dean for research.

“This is just the start,” Siddique said. “We started with these two specific ones because of what our partners wanted to do. The next phase is going to vendors and other manufacturers and looking at a broader application.”

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Abhimanyu Chavan is the founder of Manufactur3D Magazine. He writes on Additive Manufacturing technology, interviews industry leaders, shares industry insights, and expresses his thoughts on the latest developments in the industry. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.