Student Work Makes Virginia Tech a Leader in 3D Printing | VTX


As 3D printing has become more mainstream, innovative design has steadily grown to take advantage of its ability to rapidly prototype and produce objects anywhere a machine can be plugged in.

Virginia Tech has made campus-wide efforts to make technology readily available in places like the Newman Library, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, and more. Within the College of Engineering, the Frith First-Year Makerspace is available specifically for incoming students, in addition to various facilities within departments. Students also purchased their own machines, seizing opportunities for invention even in dormitories and apartment buildings.

Within the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the Design, Research and Education Laboratory for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) diligently pushes 3D printing to its next level. Chris Williams, Lab Director and LS Randolph Professor, is a 25-year veteran of the discipline, having entered the field long before 3D printing became an academic buzzword. Since Williams arrived on campus in 2008, her team has not only produced a steady stream of innovative 3D-printed objects, but also spearheaded initiatives to make better printers, pioneered new materials, and mentored the next generation of inventors.

From this unique environment, a historic academic year has emerged. Since the start of classes in the fall of 2021, several student teams have accumulated a series of significant victories. Their work has introduced significant cost savings to industry, catapulted new possibilities for working in space, supercharged engines and an enriched quality of life.

Win international design competitions

A group of undergraduate students, mentored by Williams and postdoctoral researcher Joseph Kubalak, caught the attention of NASA.

The nine-member senior design team, working directly out of the DREAMS lab, won $75,000 in funding through NASA’s University Senate Research Committee grant competition to create a robotic work cell for the autonomous production of a 3D printed drone. This would require not only producing individual parts, but also putting them together and creating a functional end product.

The funding allowed the team to formalize their research idea into a challenge: bringing together computer-aided design, mechatronics and robotics, programming and structural analysis to fabricate the drone chassis, integrate electronics and scrape the finished drone off the plate. If all went well, the finished drone could fly off the plate and shoot video of the next drone being created.

The year-long senior design process yielded just that. The team began at the opening of the fall semester, taking four months to create conceptual designs and prototype solutions. After the holidays, they used the next five months to deploy the machines that would print and assemble the final product.

The first drone flew from the printer in April.

Completing such a complex project in such a short time would have been monumental for an army of experienced engineers, but it’s especially remarkable for a group of students working on their first degree.

“This isn’t your ordinary 3D printer,” Williams said. “It is an industrial robot programmed to 3D print and assemble electronic components to enable the autonomous manufacturing of complete mechatronic systems. It’s a big problem.

Along the way, the team of undergraduate students also won first prize in the Student Manufacturing Design Competition, held annually at North America’s largest and oldest international forum for applied research and industrial applications in manufacturing and design. This challenge is administered by both the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Tadek Kosmal, the senior team project manager, commented on the crazy semester he and his classmates had.

“A year ago, if you had told me that I would do this, that I would do this accomplished, I would have said no,” he said. “Even less in this short time. Now, whenever we show the build plate flying drone video, you can just see it in people’s eyes. Wow. I did it.”


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