UTEP's Additive Manufacturing Research Excellence Continues to Garner National Attention
Last Updated on August 23, 2022 at 12:00 AM
Originally published August 23, 2022
By Pablo Villa
UTEP Marketing and Communications
Arianna Villegas sheepishly admits she experienced difficulty the first time she attempted to locate one of the most renowned research centers at The University of Texas at El Paso.
In fall 2019, Villegas was new to campus after graduating from Valle Verde Early College High School in El Paso. In quick fashion, the mechanical engineering major, who was long interested in robotics, secured an interview for an undergraduate research position at the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation. Villegas — who received her bachelor’s degree during UTEP’s recent May 2022 Commencement weekend — meandered throughout UTEP’s Engineering Building before resorting to emailing her contact for the center’s exact location.
“I didn’t know where it was,” Villegas said. “I eventually had to ask, ‘Where’s the room number?’” Today, Villegas is well-versed in the Keck Center’s confines, which comprise 30,000 square feet of research space on and off campus where more than 100 cutting-edge machines ranging in cost from $1,000 to $1 million reside.
She’s not the only one. Along with scores of students, faculty and staff on campus, the nation has taken notice of UTEP’s superior technical strength in additive manufacturing, cultivated throughout the last two decades. Much of that clout has been derived from the Keck Center, a research linchpin established in 2000 on the UTEP campus as part of a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The Keck Center is at the forefront of UTEP’s foray into additive manufacturing (AM), a group of technologies that prints three dimensional shapes fed from computer software using a layer-by-layer building process.
It is why America Makes, the nation’s leading and collaborative partner in 3D printing technology research, discovery, creation and innovation, named the Keck Center its first satellite center in 2015 to benefit industry, academia, government, nongovernment agencies and economic development needs in the Paso del Norte region and beyond.
“Our overall mission is to increase adoption of additive manufacturing,” said John Wilczynski, executive director of America Makes. “The biggest thing holding us back is not enough people know how to use the technology. There’s a realization that there’s no supply sharing and we don’t have enough people who have considered using additive manufacturing. UTEP is an institution that is touching all of those areas, and is doing so successfully. There is obviously a storied history there, and there is a fantastic team at UTEP that is getting things done and getting things delivered.”
The Keck Center is the jewel of UTEP’s additive manufacturing (AM) research enterprise and has drawn a significant portion of the more than $380 million in research funding that America’s leading Hispanic-serving university has secured during the last decade from major funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.
UTEP has been a leading force in the worldwide revolution of additive manufacturing since 2000 when the Keck Center and UTEP’s College of Engineering made strategic investments in AM technologies, known more popularly as 3D printing, to assist manufacturers in prototyping parts before investing in costly manufacturing tools needed for production.
Keck Center researchers use 3D printers to create jet engine components, medical implants, volumetric circuits and scores of other items. T hey identified the potential of AM technology at the turn of the 20th century, initially securing the Keck Foundation funding for biomedical research. Since then, the Keck Center has served as the fulcrum for a bevy of AM-related projects such as the development of the Aerospace Center, one of the most prolific aerospace research and education programs in the nation aimed at training a diverse future aerospace workforce. The Aerospace Center’s aspirations were reinforced by a momentous agreement with the U.S. Space Force announced during the fall 2021 semester that will provide advanced research and workforce development for the newest U.S. military branch.
In August 2021, UTEP dedicated the 3D Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Technologies Center, a Keck facility in central El Paso that represents the latest initiative at the University in the field of additive manufacturing. T he center is an important component of UTEP’s commitment to work with the community to create the jobs of the future.
“We are the model of how to do it,” said Ryan Wicker, Ph.D., Mr. and Mrs. McIntosh Murchison I Endowed Chaired Professor and founder of the Keck Center. “We are a premier institution in terms of technical capabilities, applied and fundamental research, and the tremendous opportunities we provide for commercial success through collaborations with UTEP.”
Wicker added that, in addition to building technical prowess, the center has never wavered from a commitment to offering opportunities for undergraduate students to augment their education by engaging in meaningful research and making real contributions. In that vein, the Keck Center houses Drive AM, one of the Department of Defense’s most prominent training programs. Students who enter the program are part of an effort to produce a superior AM-educated domestic manufacturing workforce and defense supply chain.
The Keck Center has also been a capable facilitator of UTEP’s commitment to providing students with an excellent and engaged education. The center’s contributions to the University’s recruitment of top-flight faculty members and its availability of first-class equipment have been key in the establishment of a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering as well as a graduate certificate program in 3D engineering and additive manufacturing.
Along with student preparation, UTEP’s prowess in additive manufacturing has helped advance the Paso del Norte region in a variety of other ways. Among them is the harnessing of additive manufacturing to spur opportunity for economic development. Those efforts are part of the work conducted by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, a UTEP graduate who has long championed her alma mater’s economic development investments that will increase wages and provide job opportunities for the University’s talented engineering graduates.
For Villegas, that has meant hands-on assignments at the Cotton facility working with polymers and material extrusion equipment. It is knowledge that she credits with helping her earn an internship with the Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles this summer, where she will work on thermal structures. Villegas will return to UTEP in fall 2022 for her graduate studies in mechanical engineering and will resume working at the Keck Center. She expressed gratitude for the experience she has gained thus far.
“I’m grateful that UTEP doesn’t put limits on what undergraduate students can do,” she said. “Here, they see potential. I was fresh out of high school, I had zero experience, I had nothing under my belt. Yet, they decided to take a chance on me. I’ve grown so much because of that and I’m definitely grateful.”
A CAMPUSWIDE COMMITMENT
Development of additive manufacturing expertise isn’t solely relegated to the Keck Center. Because of the Keck Center’s prestige as a world leader in additive manufacturing, the University — and all of the AM-related work that takes place within — is viewed on a similar plane.
A large portion of that pre-eminence is enjoyed by the College of Engineering. The entirety of the college conducts work in the realm of 3D printing, and interdisciplinary collaborations mean other colleges and schools at the University benefit from this burgeoning research strength.
“We strive to augment educational opportunities for engineering students, faculty and staff that are industry driven and based on scientific cooperation,” said Patricia A. Nava, Ph.D., interim dean of UTEP’s College of Engineering. “This means our students get a sample of industry before they ever arrive there, and that is one of the best educational experiences they can receive. It develops their unique talents and enables prosperity for them and for the communities they eventually join.”
In February 2022, UTEP unveiled the most recent example of its success in this arena when it announced that student researchers from the University’s Aerospace Center will engage in the design, synthesis and fabrication of advanced nuclear materials through a five-year, $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The award renews the Partnership for Research and Education Consortium in Ceramics and Polymers (PRE-CCAP), a collaborative effort with Florida International University, Tennessee State University, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Kansas City National Security Campus, to transform national nuclear security through nuclear material science applications by creating a pipeline for the next generation of students from El Paso and throughout the country. At UTEP, it will involve research and development in additive manufacturing, among other aerospace and mechanical engineering technologies.
“UTEP is a prime fit for this partnership because of its demonstrated excellence in serving its majority Hispanic student population,” said Beatriz Cuartas, Ph.D., federal program interim director of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program, which oversees the PRECCAP consortium. “But, independent of that, it is an institution that has excelled in research in many fields. That has made UTEP a very attractive place for national partners to pursue opportunities for collaboration.”
SUCCESS AFTER UTEP
Beyond those looking to leverage UTEP’s academic and research resources, industry leaders have taken note of the quality of graduates produced by the University’s engineering programs.
Hector Sandoval is one of those individuals. He received his master’s in metallurgical and materials engineering in 2006 and his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2003. Sandoval was a beneficiary of The University of Texas System’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), which helps underrepresented undergraduate students successfully complete high-quality degree programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines to diversify the STEM workforce.
That put him in contact with Wicker, who at the time was starting a brand-new engineering laboratory on campus, the precursor to the Keck Center. Sandoval was enticed by the opportunities and potential of additive manufacturing technology. He jumped at the chance to work with the budding research team.
“A couple years later, Dr. Wicker was awarded the grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation and the lab became the W.M Keck Center for 3D Innovation,” he said.
Today, Sandoval is a technical fellow at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Grand Prairie, Texas. He supports tactical and strike missile programs and the Advanced Manufacturing Technologies group at LMMFC. Sandoval leads internal research and development projects focusing on implementation of additive manufacturing technologies and support production programs. He lauds UTEP for the access it granted to educational and research programs that rival those of top-ranked universities.
“UTEP students have access to world-class research facilities, top-tier faculty, flexible schedules, and funding opportunities. Taking advantage of this support system helps UTEP students prepare for their professional careers and provides a competitive advantage over graduates from other universities,” said Sandoval, who joined Lockheed in 2006. “My experience at UTEP provided a strong foundation and network that helped me achieve my personal and professional goals.”
More than a decade after Sandoval left UTEP, Jose Motta enjoyed similar research experiences. Motta, who earned his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering from UTEP in 2018 and 2015, respectively, worked at the Keck Center for more than four years. During his time with the center, he developed a wire embedding system with a curved delivery path that was later integrated into a desktop 3D printer. This was work that ended with Motta’s name on a U.S. patent as an inventor.
By the time he left UTEP, Motta led a team of two graduate students and 10 undergraduates on a project that was requested by America Makes. He also participated in several prestigious conferences and served an internship with an Air Force Research Laboratory contractor in Dayton, Ohio. Motta said all of these experiences amply prepared him for an aeronautical engineer role at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, Texas, where he arrived in 2019.
“I can say with confidence that I was extremely lucky to have been a part of the Keck Center,” Motta said. “I do my work with pride and joy because of the confidence that I gained while working there. UTEP and the Keck Center offer a place where you can do and be your best.”
BUILDING EL PASO’S FUTURE
For Wilczynski, the America Makes leader, the success of UTEP graduates is a unique trait of the University that he hopes the rest of the country can model.
“We work with 30 academic/research institutions, and what’s interesting about UTEP out of all of those places, is the connection to industry,” Wilczynski said. “The applications of additive manufacturing are what make it come to life for people. At the end of the day, it’s a simple process. You’re putting down layers, building something up. Not complicated. But, it only really starts to make sense when people apply it to something. You have to look at formulas and make it work in a way that makes sense to you.
“I think what UTEP has done while working with us, the Department of Defense, Lockheed and others, it goes beyond application. The team down there has figured out how to engage with the private side, with industry. Lockheed hired 80 UTEP graduates last year. Something that UTEP is doing is working. The question is, how do we scale that up? That is a significant issue that we will deal with in the years to come.”
For Wicker, the ability UTEP possesses to prepare high-caliber graduates who are ready to make immediate impacts in industry nationwide is commendable. It is a testament to the University’s sustained efforts to advance meaningful discoveries and positively impact the future of higher education.
Some of those graduates have returned to the Keck Center to continue its mission of transforming the way products are designed and manufactured as well as impacting engineering students personally and professionally.
Among them are Francisco Medina, Ph.D., the Keck Center’s director of technology and engagement and an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Medina is a worldrenowned expert in AM and electron beam powder bed fusion technology. He has more than 18 years of experience in AM and has educated more than 1,000 scientists and engineers in the areas of metals AM technology, processes and advanced applications. Medina was the Keck Center’s first manager serving in that role from 2001 to 2013. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UTEP.
David Espalin, Ph.D., assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and director of research at the Keck Center, succeeded Medina as center manager in September 2013. He also earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at UTEP. His current research is in the area of hybrid additive manufacturing, large area additive manufacturing, 3D electronics fabrication, and design software development. T hrough the development of custom machines at UTEP, Espalin has enabled multi-technology manufacturing that allows not only depositing thermoplastic materials, but also the use of wire embedding, machining, foil application, and robotic component placement to achieve the fabrication of multifunctional devices.
Mireya Flores assumed the role of center manager in May 2018 and ascended to assistant director in December 2021. Flores is the inaugural graduate of UTEP’s biomedical engineering master’s program. She joined the Keck Center as a graduate research assistant in 2013. From 2014 to 2018, she was a managing editor for Additive Manufacturing, an Elsevier Journal.
This trio, Wicker said, will be essential in ensuring that the vision of the Keck Center — and the prosperity of UTEP and the Paso del Norte region — continue to come to fruition.
“The Keck Center has enabled so much at the University. It’s not solely in research, but in professional growth, in the personal and professional impacts on individuals as well as the careers the students eventually choose to pursue,” Wicker said. “Frank and David epitomize this. They both received their degrees at UTEP while in the Keck Center and are now faculty members and directors of the center. They are continuing the passion of additive manufacturing at UTEP. Mireya has her own awesome story and she is now the third center manager. They all experienced different things but always with tremendous growth and impact mindsets. We have enjoyed a tremendous line of succession of center managers and it is one of many testaments to our impact at UTEP and beyond.”
Wicker has seen success in expanding the role that UTEP and the Keck Center play in helping the Paso del Norte region achieve its full economic potential through 3D printing. Now, he wants to parlay that success into an effort to take on one of El Paso’s greatest challenges — the continued loss of highly trained UTEP STEM graduates who are aggressively recruited by employers throughout the country.
Wicker, who arrived at UTEP in 1994, recalls a signature line delivered during the first Commencement ceremonies he took part in that indicated 60-plus percent of graduates were the first in their families to earn a college degree. In 2020-21, 51% of graduating seniors reported that they were first-generation college graduates.
“I’ve been here 28 years. That should amount to a generation,” Wicker said. “Yet, that metric hasn’t gone down significantly. That’s because we keep exporting graduates to these high-paying jobs elsewhere. It’s the reason El Paso’s median income stays flat, because we don’t have engineering jobs here. We are building the ability to compete nationally, to bring in research dollars, to be leaders in the field. We need to leverage that research for our community, to create industry in El Paso and recruit companies to town. Additive manufacturing will be a big part of that.”