Olmsted Joins Hopkins, NIST in 3D Printing Research


Infrared image of 3D printing using polymers, showing the temperature profile during the printing process (image courtesy of NIST).

September 21, 2016 — Georgetown College physics professor Peter Olmsted will participate in a major research project led by Johns Hopkins University and the National Institute of Standards and Techology (NIST) to study the properties of polymers used in 3D printing. The project is funded for $1.6 million over four years by the National Science Foundation’s Division for Materials Research.

The Joseph Semmes Ives Chair in Physics and Director of the Institute for Soft Matter Synthesis and Metrology, Olmsted has worked extensively in the field of soft matter, and helped Georgetown secure a new funding framework with NIST earlier this year.

This latest grant funds collaborative research on Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), the most common and fastest-growing method of 3D printing that is nonetheless limited by the strength of the bond between filaments deposited in the manufacturing process.

“Plastic parts are usually used for low-strength applications such as templates for strong materials, non-weight bearing products, and prototypes,” Olmsted said. “If the weak links can be understood, then the function of plastic 3D materials made using it can be increased dramatically.”

Olmsted’s research will examine the deformation and flow of thermoplastic polymers used in 3D printing at the molecular level, specifically to determine how the printing parameters and feedstock affects the mechanical properties of the finished, printed material. The researchers hope to find ways to manipulate the printing process such that the final products are stronger than those currently produced.

With a more advanced understanding of the molecular properties of the material in this scenario, FFF may be used to manufacture structure-critical parts, and engineers may be able to accelerate 3D print design in future software.

3D printing is also known as “additive manufacturing,” because material is added by design instead of cutting, or fastening other parts together. According to Olmsted, it promises a revolution in product design.

“It can enable more efficient manufacturing by moving production to the place of end use, and thus requiring only transportation of raw materials,” Olmsted said.

— Patrick Curran