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An Interview with Dr. Christopher Williams, Virginia Tech

The use of 3D printing technology in higher education continues to amaze us. It seems like almost each week new products or techniques are being developed by college and universities for a variety of uses. We recently heard about the efforts of Dr. Christopher Williams who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Department of Engineering Education as well as the W. S. “Pete” White Chair for Innovation in Engineering Education. Dr. Williams serves as the Associate Director, Macromolecules & Interfaces Institute, Virginia Tech and director of the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab. Recently a team of his students successfully created an ant vehicle which can be used in disaster relief. Recently we had the chance to catch up with Dr. Williams to hear more about what he doing in the realm of additive manufacturing (AM) at VT. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) When was the DREAMS lab founded and why? How many total faculty work there and do you have any further support from graduate students?
The DREAMS Lab is a research lab within the VT Department of Mechanical Engineering that is focused in advancing Additive Manufacturing process, materials, and applications. I created the lab upon my arrival to VT in 2008. Since then, I have advised 20 graduate students in additive manufacturing research (http://www.me.vt.edu/dreams/people/). While I'm the sole faculty in the lab, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech recently hired five new faculty in Advanced Manufacturing—three of whom are focused in Additive Manufacturing.

2) When and how did you begin your research interests into Additive manufacturing?
My first exposure to AM was as a sophomore at the University of Florida in the mid-90s. The department had just purchased a new "Rapid Prototyping" machine (a Stratasys FDM 1600); my design instructor let us all print one small piece with the assignment to "make something impossible." That was a perfect assignment - it showed us both the potential of the new technology, as well as how this potential was limited by the CAD tools available (3D solid modeling was just being introduced to AutoCAD, so we had to construct our 3D models via wireframes). The technology my imagination then, and I was hooked. From there, I researched and developed an online STL viewer (written in Java 1.1!) for my senior undergraduate thesis. I then went on to Georgia Tech, where I researched fabricating metal parts via Binder Jetting for my PhD dissertation.

3) What types of printers and filament are generally used as for your work with the DREAMS lab? Are they available for use by any student or staff member at VA Tech, or only those enrolled in your courses?
As you can see on our website (http://www.me.vt.edu/dreams/facility/), we have a wide variety of Additive Manufacturing technologies. Of the 7 ASTM classifications of AM, we have 5 in our lab. This allows us to process almost any type of material - polymer, metal, ceramic, and even nanocomposites and bio-materials. A large focus in our research is in advancing the materials' options for AM (http://www.me.vt.edu/dreams/category/materials-research/). We have a terrific group of polymer scientists and engineers here at Virginia Tech (http://www.mii.vt.edu/), and working with them has significantly accelerated our AM materials discovery efforts. We have developed several resins for stereolithography systems - resins with carbon nanotubes and quantum dots, as well as ion-conducting resins, polyesters, and bio-compatible materials. We are also developing a means for printing copper via binder jetting (e.g., the ExOne systems). We are currently working on several different filaments for extrusion systems, and we look forward to sharing the results of those projects by the end of the year.

Since the DREAMS Lab is a research lab, its equipment is only used to support research. However, there are several other 3D Printers across campus that students have access to. For example, both our Frith Freshman Design Lab (https://www.facebook.com/frith.lab) and the Mechanical Engineering Senior Design lab have four uPrint SE Plus systems. In addition to these systems, we have created a 3D printing vending machine - the "DreamVendor"—that provides open (and free) access to 3D printing (https://vimeo.com/41774793). Students can walk up to the system with their STL on a SD card, load the file, and then walk away— the machine automatically prints and dispenses the part—and even texts the student when the job is finished.

4) Are the courses you teach designed for undergraduate students, graduate students or both?
I teach a course in Additive Manufacturing, which is currently offered to both senior-level undergraduates and graduate students. In the course, students learn both about the underlying physics of the processes and their material capabilities, as well as techniques for designing products for AM (http://sffsymposium.engr.utexas.edu/Manuscripts/2012/2012-05-Williams.pdf). At the end of the class, students develop a product that is designed specifically for production via AM.

In fact, in the next month, one of the student groups will be hitting Kickstarter to launch their product and new business! In addition to the class, we have integrated AM across the entire Engineering curriculum. Students are introduced to it in our first-year program, and many use it in their senior design projects.

Finally, we offer students across the campus to get involved with AM with our vending machine and via our annual AM Vehicle Design Competition, which asks students to design a fully functional remote-controlled vehicle that is made entirely by AM (https://vimeo.com/97526308). In addition to our VT students, we also reach out to the community via lab open houses and 3D Printing workshops. We also offer short-courses for practicing engineers to teach them about the capabilities of AM.

5) What are some of the short and long-term goals of the DREAMS Lab at VA Tech?
Our long-term goal is to enable AM technologies to be used in final part manufacturing. Our approach to accomplishing this goal is embedded in the DREAMS acronym: we research new Design methods and tools for AM, we Research new materials and new printing processes, and we Educate the next-generation engineer about AM.