Mizzou Engineering offers full-service rapid prototype facility for student, campus and outside use
Modeling and prototype development are routine components of engineering processes, facilitated in recent years by advances in rapid prototyping technologies. The University of Missouri’s College of Engineering has embraced the upsurge in one of engineering’s fastest growing fields and has established a prototype development facility with capabilities that Mike Klote, engineering lab manager, believes may only be duplicated on one other university campus in the nation.
“We have unique capabilities within engineering that don’t exist in many places, including four rapid prototype machines, each with a slightly different process and a unique function,” Klote said.
The lab offers students experience using the latest in modeling software and prototype equipment, boosting their employability collateral. And by offering for-pay prototyping services to on- and off-campus entities, the college has been able to realize cost recovery on the equipment and materials, and also update its offerings.
“This unique business configuration allows us to bring expensive state-of-the-art equipment to the undergraduate program that we normally couldn’t do,” Klote said.
For those unfamiliar with rapid prototyping technology, a whimsical analogy is the replicator that produced spare parts — not to mention meals! — for television’s “Star Trek” crew aboard the Starship Enterprise. But rather than “rearranging subatomic particles into molecules to form the object,” prototyping technologies work on the principle of additive manufacturing, whereby materials are joined together, layer upon layer to make three-dimensional objects based on modeling data.
Software used to create 3D models such as Pro-Engineer and the fast-rising industry standard software, SolidWorks, are 90 percent of the entire rapid prototype process, according to Klote.
“Student projects have scheduling priority within the lab. Over half the work done on these machines is done by students working on senior capstone projects and by student competition teams,” Klote said of work being accomplished in the college’s prototype development facility. The SAE formula car team captain, one of two undergraduates hired by Klote during the spring 2011 semester to work on additional projects in the lab, subsequently landed two internships this past summer because of his experience working with modeling and prototyping.
Klote plans to offer a class on the technology beginning in the spring 2012 semester.
In addition to prototypes for engineering faculty research, several projects have been completed for MU entities, including veterinary medicine, human environmental studies (HES), and the biodesign program.
“We made dog leg bones for vet-med students learning pet orthopedics. That way they don’t have to use real dogs for the training,” Klote said.
Another campus project involved modeling an ear canal for surgeons from MU’s School of Medicine to use when teaching students to insert ear fluid drains. Future models will be coated inside with a metallic paint that will make the process electronic. Klote likened it to the game “Operation” because a buzzer will sound when the student surgeon “slips up.”
Microdyne LLC, a St. Joseph start-up with an idea for a novel device for use in the cattle industry, contacted Paul Bateson of MU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for advice on who might help them build a prototype. Bateson put them in touch with Klote.
Microdyne spokesperson Jim Jackson explained that 80 percent of all dairy cows are artificially bred, pointing out that MU is at the forefront of artificial/timed breeding research in beef cows.
Jackson said the No. 1 indication that a cow has entered the four- to 12-hour window during which she can successfully be bred is that other cows “in sympathy” will mount her. The company’s patented device, affixed just above the cow’s tail on her back, measures these standing mounts, communicating that a cow is “open” with three different signals: an LCD light because the activity often occurs at night, an LED light that flashes in a pattern indicating the number of mounts and an audible beep.
A Centralia company developed circuitry for the device and a Colorado firm fabricated the circuit boards.
“We were prepared and actually began to have this development work done in China, but with Paul Batson’s guidance, we found Mike and other highly skilled people locally,” Jackson said.
The company had MU’s prototype lab develop the plastic casing for the device and in the future, intends to utilize as many services as the lab has to offer.
“We gave Mike some stringent tolerances and he was able to meet them,” Jackson said. “We are so pleased with what they’ve been able to do.”
The first version of the device, marketed as the “TattleTaleTM,” already is being offered commercially. Jackson said the company marketing them is eagerly pressing to test a second version of the device that addresses some problems with the original.
“Mike came up with some ingenious ways to make our case fit together,” said Jackson. “We’re thrilled with what he’s done and we’re really excited about this second version.”
“We’ve worked with companies as far away as Texas,” said Klote. “A new mold to use in a standard manufacturing process can cost $30,000 and you may need only 100 of something like, say a knob. Those parts can be fabricated easily and cheaply using rapid prototyping.”
“The original work for Microdyne’s prototype was done on the Objet machine,” said Klote. “It’s a polyjet system that uses photopolymer resin that is UV curable. Its inkjet-like heads dribble out the resin in a 16 micron resolution [layer thickness], the light passes over to dry cure it and another layer drops down.”
Klote said the fine layers on this high-speed machine allow for very smooth surfaces and fine details. The machine supports a number of materials providing options for flexibility and color.
“The second rendering of Microdyne’s case was completed using another machine, the EOS Formiga, because it needed to be more sturdy and the Formiga’s SLS process uses polyamide, or nylon, which is extremely durable,” Klote said.
SLS stands for selective laser sintering, a process whereby a laser melts one-milliliter layers together to form a computer-modeled prototype.
“It’s very high resolution and can make super small models. It also has very good thermal characteristics and can make many parts at one time,” Klote said. “It’s like magic.”
The veterinary medicine bone models and the first rendition of an HES “green” competition house model were completed using a third prototype process with a Z Corporation machine in engineering’s prototype development facility.
“It uses 3D printing technology,” said Klote. “Printer inkjets build up layers of gypsum and when finished, it’s like an archeological dig. You remove the prototype from the machine and extract it from the loose gypsum surrounding it.”
The materials and process used in the Z Corp machine have been the most inexpensive of the lab’s available processes. It’s fast and can make beautiful, full color, high-resolution models, though they are fragile and water-soluble.
A fourth prototype machine, the Dimension Elite, has been added to the lab and is scheduled to be operational soon. The Elite uses fused deposition modeling (FDM), a process Klote likened to a hot glue gun, which extrudes a thin thread of ABS thermoplastic and then knits each layer together.
“It doesn’t have the finest resolution, but models are extremely robust. It will be the cheapest of the three plastic processes we offer,” Klote said.
Soon, Klote hopes to add sterolithographic prototyping (SLA) equipment, which uses photo curable resins. Finished models closely mimic those of industry’s injection-molding processes. SLA can rapidly manufacture several parts of different shapes and sizes at the same time.
“The SLA system will be our top-of-the-line machine, and combines all of the better qualities from each of the other processes. It’s just a very expensive game to get into, but our fee-for-service arrangement will hopefully allow us to purchase the system and offer that technology,” Klote said.
“We’ve also recently added computer numerical control (CNC) capabilities [a subtractive automated machining process where a computer-modeled part is cut from a block of material] to our traditional machining capabilities. In the near future, small-scale injection molding and prototype tensile and compressive material testing will also be available,” he said.
All of that, added to the lab’s long-standing electronic circuit design and circuit board development abilities, Klote said, will make the lab a one-stop shop for assisting prototype development.
“We’re open for business. We just need to get the word out.”
Contact Michael Absheer and the MU College of Engineering’s prototype development facility by calling 573-884-7002 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website at engineering.missouri.edu/prototype.