Research possibilities endless with SPECtacular facility
January 25, 2011 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Jorge Mireles, senior mechanical engineering major works at the current W.M. Keck Center, where the future SPEC Center will be located.
Imagine making a trip to your local automotive dealership, walking into the front office, consulting a sales representative and designing the car of your dreams. After a few short minutes, you press print and within hours, drive off the lot in the car you designed.
Sounds like an episode of the "Jetsons," but with technological innovations in the field of additive manufacturing, UTEP will soon be able to develop products capable of such advanced fabrication technologies.
The Structural and Printed Emerging Technologies (SPEC) Center in the College of Engineering is currently in development due to a $9 million grant. Governor Rick Perry recently announced that the state will invest $3 million through the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. In addition to the $3 million that industry partner Lockheed Martin Aeronautics will contribute, the University of Texas System has pledged and additional $3 million. The state-of-the-art facility, dedicated to advanced printed electronics research, will open in March 2011.
"Texas continues to be a leader in jobs, innovation and technological development, thanks in part to investments through the Texas Emerging Technology Fund that have helped attract top researchers to our universities and cutting-edge companies to the state," said Perry in a press release.
Additive manufacturing, the process of making a part, or product, by adding layers of material in efficient ways, resulting in reduced waste and cost, is already being utilized at the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, located at the College of Engineering. The addition of the SPEC Center will take the existing technologies into the future by focusing on printed electronics with the capacity to produce devices limited only to the researcher's imagination – and will also create a number of jobs for UTEP students.
"It will provide experience with software programs and machinery that will be necessary to compete in the workforce," said Jose Luis Gutierrez, senior industrial engineering major.
Co-director of the SPEC Center and current director of the Keck Center, Ryan Wicker, said the vision of the new research facility is to advance technology and fabricate virtually anything from the ground up by focusing on 3-D electronics.
This grant is the starting point for future grants that will complement the work that the Keck Center has been doing in recent years, by developing 3-D computer models to build products layer by layer, and then print off virtually any product including unique 3-D structures with complicated geometries, electronics and optics.
Research professor Kenneth H. Church will be directing the SPEC Center and lending his entrepreneurial expertise to creating job opportunities for students, based on the technological skills that are intuitive to today's generations. Church's involvement with the 3-D Monolithix company, will prove instrumental in ensuring that the knowledge students gain while studying and researching at the SPEC Center will prove marketable in the work force. The company will act as a spin-off company to develop products for the defense industry.
"The next generation of technological opportunity exists with students who are driven off of a Windows-based skill set," said Church, who is a electrical and computer engineering professor.
Whereas most universities generate solely technology, UTEP and 3D Monolithix will be generating both technology and products of value for the U.S Air Force, Navy and companies such as Lockheed Martin Aeronautics - the limits of which extend beyond the globe. By producing products of value, such as microsatellites for institutions such as NASA, the intrinsic electronic value of virtually any structure can be utilized through advanced structural and printed technologies.
"Anything can be electronically functional, and by mixing materials on a micron scale, it will be possible to transform structural products such as an iPhone into a pair of sunglasses, or a microsatellite, half the size of a standard refrigerator, reduced to the size of a grapefruit – and still be fully functional," Church said.
SPEC researchers hope that by manipulating how electronics are designed and built, they will be able to transform products from traditional 2-D circuit boards to complicated 3-D structures that maximize the intended function of the product.
"Anything can be electronically functional by mixing materials on a micron scale," Church said.
Originally posted on The Prospector.