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Penn State Explores Direct Digital Manufacturing

By the time the next academic year rolls around, scientists at Penn State University hope to have a cutting-edge manufacturing technology lab installed on campus.

Leaders of the school's Center for Innovative Materials Processing (CIMP) said the new facility explores "direct digital manufacturing" — a relatively new process by which machines can create products automatically, using only a digital blueprint.

Essentially, an engineer would be able to enter specifications into a computer and pick up the real, finished product at the other end of the lab shortly thereafter.

CIMP Co-Director Rich Martukanitz said the lab's centerpiece will be an electron beam able to weld metals like steel and titanium into complex machine parts via digital instructions.

"That will provide us with probably the greatest capabilities to direct digital manufacturing equipment for metallic structures in the U.S.," said Martukanitz.

The Sciaky, Inc. electron beam deposits metal in layers according to the computerized draft at speeds up to 40 pounds of metal per hour.

Martukanitz said the lab will work closely with the Department of Defense, and with partners in the manufacturing industry. He said the equipment has the potential to produce machine parts for many different sectors, from aerospace components to medical technology.

"The belief is that direct digital manufacturing will certainly aid in reinvigorating the manufacturing base within the U.S., and especially in Pennsylvania, that's been traditionally an industrial state," said Martukanitz.

The new lab will also incorporate current CIMP equipment. Martukanitz said the whole investment ranges from $5-8 million. According to Sciaky, Inc., funding for the electron beam comes from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The lab is slated for completion in August.