Two Penn Research Teams Win NSF Awards to Pursue ‘the Future of Manufacturing’

Concrete structure
The Weitzman School of Design’s Masoud Akbarzadeh has used geometry-based structural optimization techniques to create human-scale structures out of concrete. He and his colleagues in Penn Engineering will mimic evolution’s approach toward minimizing the use of material while maximizing its performance as part of their NSF “Future Manufacturing” project.

Two teams of Penn researchers have been tapped to drive “the future of manufacturing” with innovative, interdisciplinary projects supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grants come from the agency’s $40 million program to develop new technologies, processes and skills in the fields of “biomanufacturing, cyber-manufacturing and eco-manufacturing.”

One team will focus on “self-morphing building blocks,” or cell-sized modules that can be assembled into human-scale structures, maximizing strength and minimizing weight in the same way evolution has optimized biological organisms.

The other will investigate “bioinspired distributed agents,” or tiny robots that work like ants to collectively complete a task. A swarm of such robots, each following its own simple set of rules, could assemble complex, intricate structures, much like a 3D printer would.

“Our investment provides industry with manufacturing tools that currently live only in the laboratory, or the imagination,” says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Through the convergence of such fields as robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and materials research, future manufacturing will create revolutionary products with unprecedented capabilities, produced sustainably in facilities across the country by a diverse, newly trained workforce.”


Self-morphing Building Blocks

Humans have been designing better construction materials for millennia, but for many applications, even the most advanced technologies can’t compete with evolution.

The ideal mix of qualities found in biological materials, such wood, chitin and bone, originate at the cellular level. They are all composed of nanoscale building blocks that have been optimized by natural selection over millions of years, with geometries that provide maximum support at minimum weight.

Inspired by these biological materials, one of the Penn teams, featuring Shu Yang, Professor in Penn Engineering’s Departments of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), Liang Feng, Associate Professor in MSE and Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE), and Masoud Akbarzadeh, Assistant Professor of Architecture in the Weitzman School of Design, will develop artificial structures that are load-bearing, lightwave-guiding, sound insulating, and self-morphing from the nano- to macroscales.

Shu Yang, Liang Feng and Masoud Akbarzadeh
Shu Yang, Liang Feng and Masoud Akbarzadeh

The 5-year, $4.6 million grant will see them collaborate with researchers at Princeton University, Rowan University and Rutgers University Camden.

Using geometry-based structural optimization techniques, Akbarzadeh has already created several human-scale structures out of concrete and glass that mimic evolution’s approach toward minimizing the use of material while maximizing its performance. Using Yang and Feng’s expertise in nanoscale and responsive materials together with the team’s novel scalable manufacturing techniques, the group will produce similar structures from bio-based and bioinspired composite materials such that they can be eco-friendly, reused, repurposed and upcycled on demand.

Through a modular design, the researchers will be able to combine these building blocks to produce meter-scale components and structures with unique geometries and advanced performance. The group’s proposal is organized under the program’s “eco-manufacturing” initiative, as these large-scale systems will be able to morph into final design configurations with less waste and with materials that have less impact on the environment.

The research will not only push the envelope to achieve additional performative functions with reduced materials and cost, but also train an inclusive and responsible future Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) workforce.


Bioinspired Distributed Agents

The other Penn project funded under the NSF’s Future Manufacturing program is also inspired by the manufacturing techniques the natural world has evolved, but is organized under its “cyber-manufacturing” initiative.

It will see Jordan Raney, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) and Mark Yim, Professor in MEAM and Director of the GRASP Lab, develop a new paradigm for manufacturing in which structures are assembled by swarms of simple, tiny robots.

Jordan Raney and Mark Yim
Jordan Raney and Mark Yim

Though each ant in a colony — or each cell in the body — has limited abilities and only local information from its immediate environment, the collective behavior of many agents can still produce complex structures.

Raney and Yim envision artificial systems that work in a similar way, with many autonomous agents each following simple local cues, such as temperature, chemical gradients or light intensity, to achieve a global goal that the individual agents may not even be aware of.

This project is a smaller, exploratory “seed” grant, which will provide roughly $500,000 toward the exploration of this new paradigm of additive manufacturing.