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Third wave of digital manufacturing takes shape

Imagine agile, robotic arms able to shape metals into highly precise parts, large and small, with almost no waste. Now, imagine that this methodology can also create new market opportunities and increased economic growth.

Metamorphic manufacturing—a new technology that forges metal objects to precise specifications—replicates the skill and ingenuity of a human metalsmith through a combination of robotic systems, high-powered machines, sensors and artificial intelligence.

A leading innovator and advocate of the technology, Fontana Professor of Metallurgical Engineering Glenn Daehn describes it as the “third wave of digital manufacturing,” following subtractive computer numeric control (CNC) and additive manufacturing (3D printing).

Daehn led a multi-institution study, “Metamorphic Manufacturing: Shaping the Future of On-Demand Components,” commissioned and released by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) in March. It was supported by the Office of Naval Research and Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT) Manufacturing Institute.

Glenn Daehn on Capitol HillAlso called robotic blacksmithing, this modern take on Old World fabrication has enormous potential to be a disruptive manufacturing technology. It can be applied to a variety of metals and has the ability to control material properties and structure, offering distinct advantages over machining, additive manufacturing and metal casting. Compared with similar technologies, robotic blacksmithing can be cheaper, faster and produce higher quality parts with a lower carbon output.

TMS organized a Congressional Briefing on June 6 hosted by the House Manufacturing Caucus, co-chaired by Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio. Daehn and TMS Director of New Initiatives George Spanos described metamorphic manufacturing’s potential and fielded questions from legislators and their aides.

The agile manufacturing methodology is especially suited for making small batch, complex, customized parts rapidly, and in a highly economical way. Daehn cited aerospace and medical devices as examples of industries that could benefit, and emphasized metamorphic manufacturing’s application to the specialized needs of our military. He also thinks it’s a matter of time before a country invests resources into perfecting and commercializing metamorphic manufacturing. He and his study collaborators would prefer the U.S. takes the lead.

In the study, they outline metamorphic manufacturing’s five foundational elements: sensors; thermal control; actuators and forming tools; robotic manipulation systems; and computation.

“If you can integrate all those things and control them, you can do anything a blacksmith can do, but much more reproducibly with much larger systems,” Daehn said. “And develop a whole class of parts that doesn’t exist today. The basic science needed to accomplish this is known, but what can be difficult is developing the skill set to integrate these elements. That’s why it will stick in the region or country in which this is pursued.”

The study includes an example metamorphic manufacturing suite integrating the elements, while acknowledging that specific equipment suites that are actually developed may differ and contain additional or fewer elements. Nevertheless, this conceptual suite provides a framework from which interested parties can begin to develop their own capabilities, or possibly inspire a company to develop a system for sale or distribution.

One of robotic blacksmithing’s first proof of concept efforts was a student competition sponsored by LIFT in 2017. An Ohio State team claimed the $25,000 top prize by successfully adapting a CNC machine with custom software and a forming end effector to create a horseshoe and a bracket using small incremental deformation steps.

Daehn and his collaborators see the TMS study as a first step in building awareness of metamorphic manufacturing’s value, but also in stimulating scientists, engineers, designers, policy makers and others who read it to get involved. That could mean initiating joint research projects, building prototype process suites, developing benchmarking computational models, and advocating for public and private funding.

Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence is assembling a demonstration cell for metamorphic manufacturing this summer with Daehn’s guidance. It will have the capability for manipulating metal parts, forming them, and collecting in-process data to construct smart models for the foundations of machine learning. This will be one of the first of its kind, and provide world-leading capability for students and researchers with the vision to advance this transformational technology. 

“I think this is a real opportunity for the U.S. to establish indigenous production capability here,” Daehn said on Capitol Hill, “and to help us with balance in trade, with faster innovation, and with skilled workforce development.”

Images courtesy of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS)

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