Focus on research: Dr Ronán McCann, I-Form

Dr Ronán McCann, I-Form
Dr Ronán McCann, I-Form

Why additive manufacturing is as much about imagination as materials

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24 September 2020 | 0

Dr Ronán McCann is a postdoctoral researcher with I-Form, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for the application of digital technologies to materials processing. In this interview he talks about his work and the uses of 3D printing.

What drew you to your current field of research?

I took a bit of a meandering route to get where I am today. My undergraduate degree was in Applied Physics in DCU. I was working and studying a part-time masters in Plasma & Vacuum Technology when I was offered a PhD position within the School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering looking at laser ablation and material processing. Doing a PhD was not something that was on my radar back then, but I found the project tied together my previous experience and had a strong application focus which is something I always enjoy.

After my PhD I worked on a Horizon 2020 SME innovation support project, helping companies transfer their technology to new sectors and develop new proof-of-concept prototypes. I joined I-Form in 2019 looking at the sustainability of the additive manufacturing (AM) process, though the use of sustainable materials such as aluminium. It’s a big challenge for everyone in the manufacturing community, and is an important question that needs to be examined globally, one I am very happy to be helping answer.

 

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3D printing is mostly associated with plastics. Why aren’t we seeing more with metals?

As with a lot of decisions in manufacturing, it comes down to the bottom line. There can be a lot of costs associated with bringing additive manufacturing into a company, from the price of the 3D printers, to validating new production processes. Even finding the expertise, especially in a rapidly evolving field such as AM, can be difficult.

Polymer printing has been around for a bit longer than its metal counterparts, and therefore it’s better known. Metal 3D printing is still fairly new, and there can be a significant amount of R&D to get a process up capable of producing parts for production, adding further cost. Currently, we’re seeing metal 3D printing in high added-value applications, such as the aerospace sector. Even Formula 1 has become a proving ground for some of this technology, so expect to see it slowly filter through the automotive sector, from high-end sports cars eventually to cheaper production cars.

How does your work seek to overcome this problem?

I-Form works with companies at many different stages in their adoption of 3D printing, from companies looking to introduce additive manufacturing to their business, all the way to multinationals looking to complement their existing R&D efforts and leverage our experience and know-how.

At the moment, I’m working with one of I-Form’s industrial partners, looking to introduce AM, specifically powder bed fusion, to replace a conventional machining process for fabricating aluminium alloy components. Aluminium is a very common material that engineers the world over know how to work with. It’s also a very sustainable material, and material choice is something many companies are re-evaluating as they look to decarbonise their manufacturing supply chain.

I’m looking at both the material choice and the process itself. From the material side, it’s not always a like-for-like swap that we can do, and finding a similar material that we can use in an additive process that suits the end-user’s application is a fine balancing act. As time goes on, we’re seeing new bespoke additive-specific materials come to the market, which ultimately should make the transition process to additive smoother.

Secondly, in AM processes aluminium tends to form very brittle or porous parts, and often we have a very small process window in which we can work. I am looking at how to extend this process window, through using new process-sensing techniques. The more information we can extract during the manufacturing process, such as if a part is developing porosity, the more robust a process we have. Having an R&D lab such as ours allows us the flexibility to trial new sensing approaches to see which technique, or combination of techniques is most applicable for a specific process.

What applications of 3D printing excite you most at the moment?

I love seeing scientists and engineers push the limits of what we can achieve with 3D printing. SpaceX was one of the first companies to really push AM in their production process mostly for smaller parts, so seeing rockets with 3D-printed components launch into space and land is really impressive. Nasa recently announced a project to build entire rocket engine nozzles for their next spacecraft using 3D printing. I also love seeing the more creative side of what people can think of, from 3D-printed food or customised nutritional supplements – it’s amazing to see what happens when engineers and scientists get innovative.

As 3D printers become ubiquitous are we in danger of seeing a flood of substandard components as makers try to turn themselves into engineers?

There is certainly a lot of exciting work going on in maker spaces, community groups, schools and universities in Ireland and around the world. People are able to design, print and test complex parts cheaply and quickly, and it’s a great tool for teaching or prototyping. But there’s a bit of a jump to bring something from the hobbyist level to a commercial scale.

I think there’s also an expectation that because something is 3D-printed it is somehow inherently better than something made the ‘old fashioned’ way.

We’re seeing a lot of new online shops selling customised keychains, nametags for dogs, and the like. Quick customisation or prototyping is something that 3D printing excels at currently, and it’s finding its feet in part production, but as the technology becomes more ubiquitous there’s a risk that the market being flooded with substandard parts.

However, with a bit of skill, practice and luck, anyone can print parts. As this method of manufacturing becomes more commonplace, I expect a lot of novel approaches from engineers or hobbyists but I would say, as with most things in life: buyer beware.

Where do you see your work going from here?

I see a lot of growth in the sustainability aspects of AM. Some companies have significant amounts of carbon in their production processes, and AM represents one area where they can have positive impact toward decarbonising.

There can be significant amount of work to adapt sustainable materials like aluminium to the AM process, and I see extending what we are currently working on to other materials and applications being my big area of research going forward.

I see the field blending all the aspects of the ‘Industry 4.0’ approach, where every new application needs to have the material science, process engineering, data analytics and machine learning all tied together, so I’m sure that will pop up in my work in the near future.

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