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This is an example of a complex selective laser sintered object. All the interior objects were manufactured at one time from a tough nylon polymer on a SinterStation 2000 machine.

This is an example of a complex selective laser sintered object. All the interior objects were manufactured at one time from a tough nylon polymer on a SinterStation 2000 machine.

UT ME, Innovation and Leadership

photo of Carl Deckard photo of Joe Beaman photo of Dave Bourell

Dr. Carl Deckard, (former undergraduate and Ph.D. student in the department), Professor Joe Beaman and Professor David Bourell both of the Mechanical Engineering Department, were instrumental in the development of both the development and commercialization of selective laser sintering.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is a high-end additive manufacturing process developed in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s in the laboratory of Professor Joe Beaman with student Carl Deckard and with guidance in laser technology and materials by Professor Dave Bourell. The department has served as an industry leader ever since, with the formation and leadership of the International Solid Freeform and Additive Manufacturing Symposium, an ongoing industry research symposium organized since 1995 by Professor Bourell. There have been several notable students that have been involved in this continuing SLS process development at the University of Texas. These include students of Joe Beaman, Carl Deckard and Suman Das, and students of Dave Bourell, Jorge Ramos and David K. Leigh.

In the last 30 years, there have been great advances in additive manufacturing, and currently several diverging technologies exist for producing 3D parts and products. The types of material and technologies used in these technologies differ, making some useful for inexpensive prototyping and others, particularly SLS, for the production of parts that can be successfully used in manufacturing, even under high temperature and stress requirements. SLS parts can be manufactured from nylon polymers, metal or other materials that can first be made into powders. Multiple materials are covered under the university patents, although currently most SLS parts are made of nylon. Department research is underway to make more materials available and to improve the process so that metal and higher temperature amorphous polymers can more readily be used. SLS makes it possible to machine parts all in one piece without designing for the tolerance from the cutting tool used in the manufacturing process. This cannot be done with more traditional manufacturing techniques. The future market, interest and demand for 3D additive manufacturing, printing and prototyping continues to grow and yield more and more uses never imagined in the beginning.

Even though it is has been almost 30 years since the initial invention of SLS, faster computers, better materials, improved machines and the lapse of some of the early patents are paving the way for an explosion in the 3D printing and manufacturing markets. Expect to see lower costs for machinery, production of more usable materials, expansion of the service bureau business and the adoption of additive manufacturing as a mainstream manufacturing process in a plethora of industries. A GE spokesman predicts that in the next few years 50% of aerospace engine parts will be freeformed using the SLS process. Industrial adoption of the process has spread far from its original roots in the automotive industry; it is now used in medical, dental and consumer products worldwide.

Photo of Carl Deckard and Joe Beaman from an Austin American Newspaper article dating from 1987 announcing the licensing of selective laser sintering technology to an Austin, Texas company named Nova Animation, which later changed its name to DTM.

Photo of Carl Deckard and Joe Beaman from an Austin American Newspaper article dating from 1987 announcing the licensing of selective laser sintering technology to an Austin, Texas company named Nova Animation, which later changed its name to DTM. Click on the image for a link to the article and photo.

The Early Days

Selective Laser Sintering started with a concept for a manufacturing process by a UT mechanical engineering undergraduate named Carl Deckard, who had worked for a machine shop in Houston in his freshman year, seeing firsthand the need for an additive manufacturing process. In 1984, Deckard teamed up with a young assistant professor, Joe Beaman, with an idea for a layered manufacturing process that called for a powder material to be melted by the heat from a laser beam, and laid down one layer at a time to build the product. Other UT researchers were soon involved after Beaman and Deckard (now Beaman's graduate student) secured funding and equipment to design and build the first selective laser sintering machine. Bourell was asked to consult on the laser technology. Other professors involved from the start include Harris Marcus from Mechanical Engineering and Joel Barlow, an expert on polymers from the Chemical Engineering department.

The SinterStation 2000, the first commercial product, was originally designed by DTM in 1992 and marketed in 1993.

The SinterStation 2000, the first commercial product, was originally designed by DTM in 1992 and marketed in 1993.

DTM

The early machine that was built showed promise as a technology, and several important patents for the technology were issued to the university in the later years, beginning in 1988. Soon Deckard and Beaman were involved in a start up company called DTM to design and build the machines, and make parts for clients. By 1989, they had sold the first machines, and in 1990 BFGoodrich bought a controlling interest in the company. It took several years to develop the first successful commercial machine, called the SinterStation 2000 In the late 1990s, Goodrich sold its share of the company to an investment firm, and later that was sold to 3D Systems, the largest additive manufacturing firm in the U.S. 3D Systems continues to market newer versions of the SinterStation. The newer machines have more safety features, are designed for ease of use, and one model can be used to make parts as large as two cubic feet.

SLS, An Industry Incubator

Harvest Technologies, updated 12/3/13

Several companies spun off from the SLS work in the Mechanical Engineering Department over the years. The first was DTM, followed by Harvest Technologies, a Belton, Texas service bureau, owned by father and son David E. Leigh and David K Leigh. Harvest Technologies started out as a machine shop owned by David E. Leigh, himself a UT engineering graduate. His son David K. Leigh was a Ph.D. student of Bourell's who initially worked for DTM. Using his knowledge of additive manufacturing, he went into business with his father, transforming Harvest Technologies from a machine shop to a state-of-the-art service bureau utilizing multiple manufacturing technologies. The company has 19 SLS machines currently in service and is one of the largest such plants in the country.

Harvest Technologies sent this additional information in December 2013:
Today, Harvest produces top quality functional prototypes, models, patterns, and end-use parts / assemblies via laser sintering, additive metals, stereolithography, 3-D printing, CNC machining, and urethane casting. Harvest is certified under the AS9100c and ISO 9001 quality management systems and specializes in prototype production, end-use part manufacturing for the aerospace industry, and materials research & development.

Advanced Laser Materials

In 2004-5 Bourell received grant funding from the State of Texas Technology and Development and Transfer Grant to develop a laser sintered silicon carbide that had to be dollar-for-dollar matched by industry. A professor in the ME department, Steve Nichols, was sponsoring an entrepreneurial competition, and this project was entered in the competition. Although it didn't win, it came in second place. Two Ph.D. students, Scott Evans and Donnie Vanelli, showed it to an angel investor named Bruce Thorton , who was one of the judges of the competition. Thorton was so taken by the technology that he matched the funds from the state grant to start a company. Donnie Vanelli became president of the company, first called ALC, Advanced Laser Composites, and later Advanced Laser Materials (ALM). Vanelli remains president today. Thorton became chairman of ALM. Scott Evans was a cofounder, but now works for Correlated Magnetics Research in Austin.

Industry Leadership, the International Freeform Fabrication and Manufacturing Symposium

Dave Bourell has been primarily responsible for the research growth of the additive manufacturing industry through his work with the International Freeform Fabrication and Manufacturing Symposium. In 1989 ME professors Joseph Beaman and Harris Marcus decided to sponsor a small meeting between industry SLS early adopters and academics working on the technology. With approximately 20 people in attendance, the meeting was deemed a success by the participants. In 1990 the group decided to host a larger meeting, which became the International Freeform Fabrication and Manufacturing Symposium, now the longest continuously-running research meeting in the field, with about 160 researchers and industry representatives from 12 different countries in attendance and 120 abstracts submitted. The meeting remains research-driven and journal reviews are always favorable. Marcus organized the meeting from 1990 to 1995. Bourell, who had been on the original organizing committee, took over as the symposium organizer in 1996 and remains in that role today, thus giving UT's Mechanical Engineering Department a front row seat in the additive manufacturing arena.

The Roadmap to Additive Manufacturing

In 2008, the Office of Naval Research (the ONR) asked Bourell to organize a meeting of additive manufacturing leaders to discuss the future of the industry. Bourell, Ming Leu of Missouri University of Science and Technology (MUST) and David Rosen of Georgia Tech secured funding from NSF and ONR to bring 65 people to Washington D.C, for a three-day workshop in March 2009. From this meeting a 100 page document named the "Roadmap to Additive Manufacturing" (18MB PDF file download) was written. The purpose of the meeting and document was to develop a vision and a funding roadmap for the industry and for funding agencies. As of March 28, 2012, there have been over 5,500 downloads of the roadmap report.

American Manufacturing Innovation

On May 9, 2012, President Obama announced a billion dollar initiative to support manufacturing innovation. The plan calls for 10 to 15 manufacturing institutes to be set up around the country. The first institute will be a pilot whose theme is additive manufacturing. What a rewarding journey SLS has made over the years, from the glimmer of an idea to the mature and expanding industry it is today.

Archival images courtesy of Dr. Carl Deckard.


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