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UNM, AFRL team on manufacturing center

UNM professor Rafael Fierro, center, works on a Baxter industrial robot with student Shakeeb Ahmad, left, and senior electrical engineer Tim Martin at the AFRL/UNM Agile Manufacturing Lab. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the military scrambles to modernize satellite defense systems and build new laser and microwave technology, it’s turning to advanced robotics manufacturing to lower costs and speed design and production through artificial intelligence and machine learning.

To develop those 21st Century engineering techniques, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the University of New Mexico have established a state-of-the-art agile manufacturing center at UNM’s science and technology park south of campus. It’s backed by a five-year, $6.7 million Air Force grant to supply cutting-edge robotics and computer systems that AFRL and UNM researchers, students and private companies will use to create rapid design-build techniques for satellite systems and directed energy technologies.

Christos Christodoulou, dean of UNM’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, stands next to a 3D printer at the Agile Manufacturing Lab. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“There’s a huge learning curve to figure out how to create whole, integrated systems for design and production,” said Christos Christodoulou, dean of UNM’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We want to develop the foundations for science, research and enabling technologies. We’ll bring companies directly on board to incorporate it into their production process.”

The lab includes three pairs of robots that work in unison on different phases of design and production, said electrical and computer engineering professor Rafael Fierro, principal investigator on the project.

Undergraduate mechanical engineering student Joe Pomo measures a 3D-printed, hard-plastic component.

Two Baxter industrial robots, each equipped with mechanical arms and a human shape to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people, will be used to manipulate and create assemblies, integrating components into modular arrays. The Baxters see things with cameras and respond to voice commands, helping them learn while working, Fierro said.

The next two robots are designed for speed and precision to rapidly manage repeatable production tasks.

“They include highly-specialized, laser-based sensors for absolute precision,” Fierro said.

A third set of robots, still on order, can fully assemble products, such as a small or medium-sized satellite. They’re equipped with artificial intelligence software to assess and adapt to new designs, Fierro said.

Components made with a 3D printer at the AFRL/UNM Agile Manufacturing Lab.

The lab also includes two different 3D printing machines to build components with standard and highly-advanced materials. Everything is networked through a central computer control system at UNM’s Ferris Engineering Center for remote management.

A 3D printer builds a plastic component at the AFRL/UNM Agile Manufacturing Lab. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The lab provides a hands-on learning environment for students and others, helping to build the high-tech talent pool needed for next-generation advanced manufacturing.

It also offers a unique setting for Air Force, academic and private researchers to collaborate on new technologies, said AFRL Technology Engagement Office Director Matt Fetrow.

“It allows for off-base collaboration among everybody in a public setting,” Fetrow said.

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