Michigan Tech research on the cutting edge

Several projects are breaking new ground in 3D printing, prosthetics and snow grooming, all with the goal to look to the future and bring it to the present.
If you think they've been standing pat in the Michigan Tech research department, you'd better think again. Researchers, scientists and professors have been hammering away at projects that will be leading technology in various fields for years to come. It's a cutting-edge time at Michigan Tech.

Take, for example, a 3D metal printer developed by Joshua Pearce and his team. Up until now, most 3D printers have been used for plastics, and those used for metals were laser-centered and could cost up to $600,000. Pearce, an associate professor of materials/science and engineering/electrical and computer engineering, along with research scientist Gerald Angelone and Ph.D. students Chenlong Zhang and Bas Wijnen, have developed a 3D metal printer--putting a new spin on existing, more inexpensive technology--that can be produced for about $1,600.

That makes it available to many more people than the previous incarnations.

"Virtually all small businesses will be able to make parts on site once this is perfected," Pearce says. "We've made some test pieces, including a small metal cup, but there will be a day when bike shops can make a key part for repairing a bike, and an auto mechanic can make a part he needs. I really believe that day is coming now that the technology has been made so inexpensive."

The detailed plans, software and firmware are all freely available and open-source, meaning anyone can use them to make their own 3D metal printer. In fact, Pearce encourages it.

"The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia has already made a free-form metal printer using the same idea, and it's something we are happy about," Pearce says. "We want this technology to be improved, so that it can get into the economy and start reaping the benefits that we think it can."

Pearce sees a day when developing countries can virtually "print themselves out of poverty" by using solar powered 3-D printers "in the middle of nowhere." The current printer now uses wire coil, but the Michigan Tech team is working on technology that soon will use aluminum cans as the feedstock for the printer.

High hopes, perhaps, but that's where researchers at Michigan Tech have been pointing. There are other examples of research projects currently going on at Michigan Tech, like one that could change life for some disabled people.

Mo Rastgaar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics, and Ph.D. student Evandro Ficanha are working on a bionic foot that could help reduce falls suffered by amputees. The key, they say, is in the ankle.

The microprocessor-controlled prostheses on the market now can move an artificial foot in only one direction, toe up and toe down.

"But in reality, we never walk in a straight line for any length of time," says Rastgaar. "When you walk and reach an obstacle, you have to turn and there's always something in our way."

So Rastgaar and Ficanha designed an ankle-foot that can move on two axes, incorporating a side-to-side roll as well as raising the toe up and down. And they moved the power and control mechanism up and away from the leg using a cable-driven mechanism. That lightens the prosthesis, making it much more comfortable and easy to use.

The cable that moves the prosthetic ankle-foot is similar to those used in bicycle brakes. It runs from the control box to the ankle mechanism and can turn the foot in almost any direction.

The aim is to help reduce the amount of times amputees fall.

"Amputees have a lot of problems with falling; 64 percent of above-the-knee amputees fall every year, compared to 33 percent of older adults," says Kenton R. Kaufman, director of the Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "The advantage of Mo's foot is that it is biomimetic--it mimics biology--so it allows a more natural walking pattern to occur, which should result in a better gait and fewer falls."

Another R & D project happening at Tech is one that's perfectly suited to the U.P.--or the South Pole, as it happens.

Russ Alger may have developed his rarified snow and ice groomer at Michigan Tech's Keweenaw Research Center, but the director of Michigan Tech's Institute for Snow Research takes his groomer on the road--in a big way--to let it do its job.

The snow paver recently returned from Antarctica, which Alger was visiting for the sixth time, where the groomer was on a mission to improve a 15-mile stretch of snow road.

The paver works by first chewing up the snow with a miller drum, which smashes the ice crystals so they will stick together. It's followed by a vibrating compactor, which gets all the air out of the snow, compressing it to make a pavement.

"It's a perfect piece of road for us," says Alger, who works with friend and coworker Joel Kunnari, who manages the winter test course at the Keweenaw Research Center. "It's new and it really needed help. They want to be able to travel that in rubber-tired vans at about 25 miles per hour."

"We mess around with how the vibrator works to try to make this snow pavement as homogenous as possible."

This involves constant work and tweaking. They build a short road to test different processing techniques and see how the surface strength changes with time.

How well does it work? After paving, their 38,000-pound tractor is sitting pretty on its cleats, perched on top of the snowy surface.

Alger and Kunnari have other destinations in their sights.

"There's interest in landing in bigger and newer planes at the South Pole and other remote areas," Alger says.

All they need is a good runway, not much different from the roads they have already built.

Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 46 years. You can reach Jeff at barrj88@gmail.com.
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