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Purdue University researchers add sensor particles to filament

Allowing for the manufacturing of functional printed parts

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Purdue University researchers have developed a patent-pending method to add sensor particles to filament and disperse them evenly through a traditional FDM 3D printer – which will aid the industry in manufacturing functional parts.

Brittany Newell and Jose M. Garcia-Bravo, associate professors in the School of Engineering Technology at the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, and Tyler Tallman, assistant professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics in the College of Engineering, have created a novel wet-mixing method to introduce electrically-conductive particles into 3D printing filament polymers. Cole Maynard, who earned his Ph.D. in August, and Julio Hernandez, a doctoral candidate, were pivotal to the research.

Traditional 3D printing makes prototypes of parts with no sensing capabilities. Sensors must be added to the part after the print if assessments are to be made.

However, in this new method, the sensors are actually a part of the filament used to print. This means that sensing capabilities are an inherent part of the printed component and allow for sensing inside of the component. The sensors are too small to be seen without a microscope, and their tiny scale allow the printed part to maintain the strength it would have otherwise sacrificed if the sensors were to be large, and built-in.

“Generally, we apply that strain gauge across the full part or apply it to the top and bottom of the part to get information on overall strain across the part,” said Brittany Newell. “However, the middle and internal structures are never monitored since the gauges are glued to the surface.”

Purdue University’s wet-mixing method ensures an even distribution of particles throughout the filament. With the sensors dispersed evenly in the filament, manufacturers and researchers can design parts with a wider variety of shapes.

Purdue University researchers add sensor particles to filament. Allowing for the manufacturing of functional printed parts.
Source: Purdue University. Image credit: Brittany Newell.

“The results from this work enable users to create complex 3D structures with embedded strain gauges, rapidly moving traditional prototype pieces into fully functional and structurally assessable parts,” said Brittany Newell. “A limitation of application of 3D printed parts has been in their durability. With this development, we can continually monitor the structural health of the part with the sensor embedded in the print.”

“This method produces materials that are conductive with very good uniformity, which greatly expands the electrical applications of 3D printed parts and sensor designs,” said Tyler Tallman.

“The materials are also tunable, meaning we can adjust the electrical and mechanical properties to optimize the sensor or part for a desired application,” said Jose M. Garcia-Bravo.

The novel wet-mixing process is not limited only to sensor conductivity. “This work can be further expanded to add other particle types using the same wet-mixing method,” said Brittany Newell. “This could include the addition of magnetic particles for electromagnetic fields, fluorescent particles, and other functionalities.”

The research was published in the July 2022 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Engineering Materials and in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 editions of the journal American Society of Mechanical Engineers Smart Materials, Adaptive Structures and Intelligent Systems. The researchers have received funding from the Naval Engineering Education Consortium, or NEEC, a program from the NAVSEA warfare centers aiming to cultivate partnerships between the Navy and higher education institutions.

The researchers disclosed the innovation to the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization, which has applied for a patent on the intellectual property. Industry partners interested in further developing this innovation should contact Dhananjay Sewak (dsewak@prf.org) about reference number 69740.

The researchers are seeking out industry partners to create a process to scale up and further test the method. “We need to increase the batch size to an industrial scale and integrate the customizable aspect of this work with industrial 3D printers,” said Brittany Newell. “The range of items that can be produced with these filaments is broad, and testing should be done to expand to new prototypes.”

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Edward Wakefield

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