Research

UK universities launch DfAM Network to advance 3D printing design research

Researchers from multiple UK universities have set up a 3D printing design consortium called the Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) Network.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-funded project aims to bring together a diverse mix of academic researchers and industry professionals in the field of DfAM in a bid to improve collaboration and accelerate future research opportunities. With over 150 members already, including the University of Cambridge and the University of Sheffield, the DfAM Network is open to anyone (in or outside the UK) with an interest in additive manufacturing.

Dr. Patrick Pradel of Loughborough University, the Principal Investigator on the project, states, “The EPSRC Design for AM Network is a wonderful opportunity to step up Design for AM research and development. We hope different interest disciplines and stakeholders will join us to discuss the future direction of Design for AM and how it can benefit further the society and the economy.”

Loughborough University was among the founding universities. Photo via Loughborough University.
Loughborough University was among the founding universities. Photo via Loughborough University.

The importance of DfAM

The concept of DfAM stems from the geometric freedom granted by 3D printing technology. Essentially, it explores the optimal way of designing components to best make use of additive manufacturing’s lack of design constraints, optimizing manufacturability, reliability, and costs. It is therefore crucial to employ DfAM principles to take full advantage of 3D printing’s unique capabilities.

One of the more commonly known DfAM tools is topology optimization, a mathematical method of modifying the geometry of a part based on finite element analysis. The approach simulates loads, boundary conditions, and constraints to improve the performances of parts while shaving off unnecessary material, enabling users to save on lead time and material costs.

Unfortunately, DfAM as a concept hasn’t exactly been central to industrial 3D printing to date, but design research is integral in taking the technology to the next step and unlocking previously impossible applications. The DfAM Network is ultimately intended to facilitate this, providing a more coordinated and unified approach to design research in the UK and ensuring it receives the attention it deserves.

A topologically optimized gyroid heat exchanger design. Photo via HRL Laboratories and Morf3D.

Collaboration across disciplines

The project has created a forum for academic researchers to connect with industry specialists, funding bodies, standards agencies, designers, and manufacturers across a wide variety of manufacturing-related disciplines. It enables members to identify common interests and exchange knowledge in a centralized manner, all with the hopes that DfAM research will branch out and become more adventurous in the long term.

Beyond just providing a networking and discussion arena, the Network will also organize meetings, workshops, and seminars for its members. By developing a comprehensive plan to scale up DfAM research until it is self-sufficient, the Network will promote the wider importance of the concept and raise its profile.

Prof. Allan Rennie of Lancaster University, a Co-Investigator on the project, concludes, “With the financial support of EPSRC and the willingness that we have witnessed so far from both the academic community and industry, we have a real opportunity to drive forward coordinated efforts in the development of Design for AM tools, methods and applications. There are some exciting times ahead, and I look forward to witnessing what emerges over the lifetime of this Network project.”

While the DfAM research space is relatively niche as far as engineering software goes, there is still some noteworthy activity. Back in September, researchers from ETH Zurich developed a computational DfAM framework capable of automating the design of complex multi-flow nozzles. The framework acts as an alternative to the conventional CAD software used by engineers today, but allows non-specialist users to design complex geometries specifically for additive manufacturing tooling components, such as FDM nozzles.

Elsewhere, in industry, 3D printer OEM Stratasys has previously partnered with topology optimization specialist nTopology to streamline the DfAM process for jigs, fixtures, and other tooling. Specifically, the partners worked together to launch a series of accessible, customizable DfAM programs for their users, starting with the FDM Assembly Fixture Generator.

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Featured image shows Loughborough University Engineering Department. Photo via Loughborough University.

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