Carolyn Seepersad smiling in her labCustomized medical devices represent an intriguing application of additive manufacturing technology, also known as 3D printing. However, the capabilities to design and print the smart, flexible materials this type of equipment requires remains lacking.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Penn State University just got a grant to change that. The $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation's LEAP-HI program will pave the way for the researchers to tackle the challenge of designing and 3D printing smart devices using multiple materials.

"In many ways, additive manufacturing started here at UT Austin, and with this grant we plan to take the capabilities of 3D printers to a new level of sophistication and automation," said Carolyn Seepersad, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and one of the leaders on the project.

The Project: Working with Pennsylvania-based medical device company Actuated Medical Inc., the researchers plan to use 3D printing techniques to design pediatric masks and other medical devices that can be customized into different shapes during use. 

They will pioneer new ways to print and actuate these multi-material devices along with new methods for designing them that take the capabilities of the additive manufacturing process into account and avoid expensive, iterative testing and refinement.

Why It Matters: The market for 3D-printed medical devices is expected to reach $5.1 billion by 2026. But in order to achieve those lofty expectations, additive manufacturing processes need to continue to improve.

Customization capabilities are imperative for many medical devices and the ability to adjust their shape as the patient grows or heals is a game-changer. Finding a fast, cost-effective way to do that could make life a lot easier for patients and clinicians alike.

The Challenge: Though 3D printing has been around for several decades, few researchers have cracked the code on how to use additive manufacturing to create smart, multi-material objects and devices.

The researchers envision printing smart devices that can change shape to accommodate shifting requirements, fabricating them in a single additive manufacturing process and customizing each device with a computationally efficient approach that ensures manufacturability.

What Else: Seepersad is part of an all-woman-led team of researchers on this project. In addition to the technical work, they will chronicle how they think, collaborate and lead within their institutional structures to get a better understanding of diversity in engineering teams and projects.

The Team: Seepersad is the faculty director at the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Design Innovation at UT Austin. Co-leaders on the research team include three professors from Penn State – Mary Frecker, department head and professor of mechanical engineering; Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering; Lorraine Dowler, professor of geography, women's, gender and sexuality studies – and Maureen Mulvihill, president and CEO of Actuated Medical.