Students at Virginia Tech, led by Dr. Christopher Williams of the Design, Research and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Lab, have worked with the U.S. Military to create a prototype for a 3-D printed “ant vehicle” they believe can be used in disaster relief efforts. The vehicle, which was made entirely of 3-D printed parts, including nanocomposites, uses six ant-like legs to move. Students have been testing the prototype by creating man-made barriers and making the vehicle walk over natural terrain to determine its functionality in harsh environments.

Dr. Williams believes what allows Virginia Tech to drive innovation in additive manufacturing is the university’s investment in key manufacturing resources.

“We have a wide array of technologies that really allow us to print any type of material from polymers to metals, ceramics, biomaterials, nanocomposites and even foundry sands for metal casting,” said Dr. Williams. “Sometimes a business [will approach us] saying ‘We already make this material, can it be 3-D printed?’ We also have [times] where people say we want a new product with new functionality design a new material, a manufacturing process, and the product. And that’s something that VA Tech is very, very capable of. That’s what really sets us apart.”

Prior to the ant vehicle project, the DREAMS Lab also collaborated with the military on two projects – one to create a material for lightweight aircraft carrier decks with enhanced cooling possibilities and a second project to provide lightweight, but stiff armor for military vehicles. Outside of military collaboration, the Lab has also studied ways to improve the topology of bicycle helmets.

“Really what we do is we try to push those technologies even further,” said Dr. Williams. “We develop new materials, new processes and new design applications for this emerging technology to transfer it from a prototyping machine into a true manufacturing platform for creating completely new products with new functionalities.”