Innovation is a beautiful word, but one that’s not always used to its full potential. As per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, innovation can be defined as “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”. Researchers in academia, as well as people working in R&D departments, are innovators by definition – however, an important question arises when technological changes happen very rapidly, such as those within the Additive Manufacturing (AM) market: are we doing enough to make the advancement happen? Is there something more that we could do to make the most out of all the information that surrounds us?
Effective and intensive communication is the best way possible to continue to reach higher goals and to shape our world in the way we’d like to be left as our legacy. Although we, as human beings, have the tools to easily communicate our needs and ideas, the act of planning and executing a diverse, effective, and inclusive communication when it comes to high technological content is a whole other story. Plus, the additive manufacturing world moves much faster than others, with innovation taking place on a daily basis… So how can we make sure that our technology is reaching our audience and potential customers in the best possible way?
Let us suppose that we have found a good way to communicate our technology and its key features – now we need to make sure that our audience is able to grasp the concept and recite what they’ve learned again in the same effective and efficient way. Targeting the correct audience is the key to impressing the people that a company, a start-up in particular, might want to attract. What happens to those outwith this demographic? Will they lose track of the important information? This is where academia and its people step in. Education plays a major role when technology and innovation need to be not only shared by people but grasped and undertaken by them; we need to present the best possible understanding of technology and its applications, in order to make a change and bring new concepts and evolutions into our current world.
3D printing is becoming a technology that more and more people are becoming accustomed to every day, thanks to the attractive projects and the following awareness raised by creative makers and innovators all over the world. However, a question that we should keep asking ourselves remains: are we making the most out of this technology? The answer to this question lies in the foundation of the aforementioned words: communication and innovation. The way in which we can combine these concepts is crucial in order to transform them into actions and produce visible and tangible changes in technology and life in general.
Words into actions
So, how do we apply these concepts and give rise to innovation in our community? As an academic institution, at the DIISM Department at the Marche Polytechnic University (UNIVPM, Ancona, Italy) we combine the opportunities given by the new additive manufacturing technologies with the imagination of our students, while also giving them the right tools and the theoretical knowledge to give structure to their way of thinking and free their minds: with AM there are no limits to the imagination! This is the concept behind B+, the new additive manufacturing lab born inside the DIISM department at UNIVPM, in the heart of central Italy overlooking the sea.
The B+ Laboratory
The B+ Laboratory of Department of Excellence at3 the Industrial Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Department (DIISM) focuses on the themes of “Additive Manufacturing” and “Collaborative Robotics” for Industry 4.0 and aims to help companies increase the use of these technologies. The Department has invested approximately 9 million euros in human capital, hiring 16 Ph.D. students and 3 female researchers (one of them being the author of this article), and in the creation of the new Laboratory purchasing innovative equipment. The research is mainly addressed to industrial sectors such as automotive, aeronautics, oil & gas, and related training activities aimed at creating highly specialized professionals. The department collaborates with international universities and with many leading local (Biesse, Zannini) and global (Magneti Marelli, Baker Hughes – General Electric) companies – through this cooperation, applied research activities are carried out and Ph.D. students have the chance to get hands-on experience in the field, thus increasing their employability.
Laser powder bed fusion, directed energy deposition, bound metal deposition… When it comes to metal Additive Manufacturing, at the B+ lab we can rely on these varied technologies and can continuously challenge ourselves, our students, and our collaborators to pick the perfect technology for each case study that local and global companies bring to us. All this accumulates to knowledge-driven innovation.
Innovation in the face of the pandemic
During the worst period of the last two years, while every citizen of this world was going through restrictions and tough lockdowns, our Ph.D. students, professors, and researchers got together and decided to build something important to fight the spread of Covid-19. Following the examples of companies and universities all over the world, our attention was concentrated on building an object that doubled as both a key chain and a hands-free door opener. As a plus, the design maintains the B+ name and has the UNIVPM and DIISM logos on the sides.
The picture below shows all the phases of the development process of the gadget, from the first prototype on the left to the final design on the right. The development did not just involve the design but also included different 3D printing technologies and different materials; the first tree prototypes on the left were fabricated using polymer (ABS) with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), followed by 316L stainless steel used together with Laser Powder Bed Fusion (L-PBF), and lastly the final choice of material and technology of Polyamide 12 filled with aluminum and made by Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).
When knowledge, tools, and imagination are put together in the same constructive and lively environment, innovation has the best conditions to take place and to evolve. This is among the reasons that have led to the foundation and growth of entrepreneurial activities such as the birth of academic spinoffs and start-ups.
SphereCube’s work towards complete sustainability
SphereCube is a spinoff of the Marche Polytechnic University and a startup based in central Italy, founded in December 2020. Its core business is the production of 3D printers able to fabricate composite objects using thermoset resins and continuous fiber reinforcement.
The mission of SphereCube is to get rid of composite processing scraps and molds, in order to reduce the environmental impact of composite production. The vision of SphereCube is to enhance the sustainability of the entire manufacturing sector, exploiting the fabrication of composite 3D printers being less energy-consuming, their ability to work with biocompatible materials and more, all this being connected with the aim of building a 100% sustainable supply chain.
Through the interaction of a heat source with the raw materials involved in the process, SphereCube’s system enables the production of components in composite material with continuous fiber reinforcement and thermosetting matrix. This innovative production process is able to automatically create products using high-performance composite materials, without geometrical limitations.