Students at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint will soon gain hands-on experience in additive metal manufacturing with an industrial 3D printer supplied by Albuquerque-based Optomec Inc.
Optomec delivered the $700,000 machine in September to the university, which will use the Laser Engineered Net Shaping, or LENS, system as one of its flagship pieces of high-tech equipment at NTU’s new Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
NTU received $4.2 million from the National Science Foundation to help set up the new center, which will officially open for operations and educational programs in November, said NTU Center for Digital Technologies Director Scott Halliday.
“The center will provide support for all phases of additive manufacturing, offering hands-on education, research and workforce development, as well as commercial services that provide employment opportunities for students and program graduates,” Halliday said. “Until now, students had to go elsewhere to study advanced manufacturing. The center will help more students to stay on the Navajo Nation while also generating economic development here to help stem the reservation’s brain drain.”
NTU is now the only one of 37 tribal universities in the U.S. to achieve Accreditation Board for Education and Technology, or ABET, certification, which is critical for students to get hired by national labs or industry, said NTU President Elmer Guy.
“With ABET accreditation, students can intern at national labs or at companies like Boeing or Honeywell,” Guy said. “They only accept or hire people from ABET-accredited schools. It puts us at a level that no other tribal college has yet achieved.”
Apart from Optomec’s LENS machine, NSF grant money allowed NTU to purchase a new, $742,000 CT Scanner from Boeing for students and others to scrutinize the inside of metal parts. The center is also equipped with scanning electron and 3D microscopes, a computer numerical mill, and computer aided design software, among other things, Halliday said.
All that equipment is now installed in an existing 5,500-square-foot building where the digital technologies center currently operates.
“That part of the advanced manufacturing center is up and running,” Halliday said. “Training will begin there in November.”
In addition, NTU received a $1 million U.S. Commerce Department grant, with $1.5 million in matching funds from the Navajo Division of Economic Development, to build a 6,000-square-foot metrology and materials testing center that will open next summer. That’s where students and others will assess and handle the metal powders used in industrial 3D printing, backed by extensive training in safety and equipment operation, Halliday said.
They’ll also do metrology inspection there on 3D printed parts to assure size and integrity of finished products.
Taken together, the two buildings will house a complete metal additive manufacturing ecosystem, Halliday said.
“We’ve been doing 3D printing with polymers for about 12 years, but the new center takes us to a whole new level with metal additive manufacturing,” Halliday said. “We’ll have all the infrastructure and skills in place now to support it.”
It’s the Optomec machine that tips the balance from plastics to 3D metal printing, which is slowly revolutionizing manufacturing in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unlike hobbyist 3D printers and other additive manufacturing equipment used in small-scale commercial operations, the LENS system is designed for high-volume industrial production of metal parts and repair operations.
The machine uses a laser to melt powdered metals into pools. It then uses the melt to draw, or print, computer-designed metal products, building components up one layer at a time.
The Albuquerque company, which launched in 1997 with technology originally designed by Sandia National Laboratories, has become a global player in industrial 3D printing, having entered the industry as a pioneer when it was just beginning.
Apart from the LENS system, Optomec also created an Aersol Jet machine to make printed electronics. That system uses gold, silver and other alloys to make liquid inks, which are sprayed in a mist of fine droplets to form extremely narrow beams, allowing operators to “write” electronics onto a variety of substrates, such as solar or silicon chips.
To date, the company has sold nearly 500 machines, which range from a low of about $200,000 to more than $1 million, depending on customer needs and the bells and whistles attached to units, said Optomec Marketing Director Mike Dean. Some 300 customers have installed LENS and Aerosol Jets across the globe, including huge firms like General Electric and Samsung.
“When we started, a lot of labs and research institutions became customers,” Dean said. “But we’ve transitioned into production-oriented applications in the last few years, which has led to a lot of growth.”
The company manufactures all its machines in Albuquerque, where it employs nearly 100 people at a 24,000-square-foot facility in the north I-25 industrial corridor. It also has operations in St. Paul, Minn., South Carolina, Switzerland and Singapore.
Halliday said the Optomec machine offers high-quality production capabilities and versatility for users.
“We can build parts from nothing in forms that we couldn’t do with traditional manufacturing,” Halliday said. “We can also repair broken parts or cracks in parts with it.”
In addition, partnering with Optomec allows NTU to work with a homegrown company that’s “just down the street,” Halliday said.
The university’s new manufacturing center will prepare students for high-tech, modern jobs as industrial 3D printing gains force, said Optomec LENS production manager Tom Cobbs.
“What’s remarkable about (NTU’s) center is how, under one roof, students have access to advanced equipment and cross-discipline training in everything from computer aided design to metal additive processing and machining, metrology and materials testing,” Cobbs said. “(The university) is doing an incredible service for NTU students and the companies they will ultimately work for by preparing them to become valuable assets post-graduation.”
Local firm Optomec supplies industrial 3D printer for program