A new dimension: Students design compete in 3D printing contest

This spring, Virginia Tech is challenging students to design vehicles in the next dimension.

The Additive Manufacturing Grand Challenge, sponsored by the Design, Research, and Education for Additive Manufacturing systems laboratory (DREAMS), is encouraging undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at Tech to design and make a remotely-piloted air or ground vehicle using additive manufacturing (AM).

AM is the process of using materials to make something from 3-D model data, usually using a layering technique.

“Two main purposes are to help show that this is possible for all of our sponsors, and the other purpose is to really engage engineers in 3-D printing — not just learning about how it works but also learning how to design products for a 3-D printer,” said Christopher Williams, head of the DREAMS Lab and one of the main organizers for the competition.

Competitors can come from all majors (though previous knowledge of programming is encouraged) and can work alone or in groups for the chance to win prize money in each category.

The air and ground competitions will each have a $3,000 first place prize with $250 awards to each group that makes it to the final round with a functional vehicle.

Other cash prizes will be rewarded for shortest build time, best vehicle performance and best use of AM. It is possible for the first place winner to win in some or all of these categories, but it is also possible for each prize to go to a different team.

Students are provided with kits from Robotic Research, an engineering firm based in Maryland that is one of the competition’s sponsors. Using materials from those kits, students will have to design a moving air or ground vehicle made almost entirely from 3-D printed materials, with the exception of some small objects like fasteners.

There will be several rounds of the competition, with 10 teams each competing in the finals of the air and ground competitions.

Students will submit computer-aided design files and competition leaders will determine which designs are the most suited for moving on to the final round. Those who move on will get the chance to build their vehicles using the 3-D printers in Virginia Tech’s DREAMS Lab.

The Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation is working with the DREAMS Lab to organize the competition. Its purpose is to teach students more about 3-D printing and demonstrate how to make these parts quickly and efficiently.

“(The competition) came about from research that we were doing at Virginia Tech on this idea of deploying additive manufacturing systems for the military,” Williams said.

While the project was inspired by possible military use, technologies used in the competition have the potential to be used in civilian situations such as assisting in natural disaster relief from remote locations.

“This has both applications in the military and in space but also in disaster relief, the idea that you could deploy 3-D printers in different locations and if there’s a natural disaster they can just quickly make parts when civilians would need it,” Williams said.

The final competition day will take place indoors May 15, where the created vehicles will be tested. Ground vehicles will navigate through different obstacle courses including incline obstacles, a rubble field, a maze and a “threading the needle” challenge.

Air vehicles will fly over the ground sites, take photos to show their stability and fly through a window. Bonus points will be awarded to those vehicles that can pick up payloads.

This is the first year of the competition, and in the future it may grow into something bigger.

“At Virginia Tech we feel like we do a really good job of educating our engineers about it through the different classes we have, and we want to sort of spread that to other universities in the future as well,” Williams said.

Judges will focus on how the vehicles are manufactured and the time required to build each vehicle. Detailed scoring guidelines will be posted by March 17.

The AM Grand Challenge has several different sponsors, but the biggest contributor of funding is the Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research. If the competition gets more sponsors, more students would be able to compete in the final round of the competition.

“Sometimes I think the one reason I became a professor is that I like to consume creativity, I just love seeing novel solutions to problems,” Williams said. “I cannot wait for that final day to see what all these people come up with. It’s going to be awesome.”

Several meetings will be held to present pertinent information about the competition. There will be one March 6 about design for additive manufacturing,” one March 19 about mechanical systems design and one March 26 about mechatronic systems design.

Office hours will be held specifically for questions about the competition. Information can be found on the AM Grand Challenge’s Scholar site.

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