Advanced Manufacturing in Kentucky
Article written By Jenny Wells-Hosley, UK Public Relations
The Kentucky National Science Foundation’s (NSF) EPSCoR, or Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, has awarded the University of Kentucky and seven other institutions across the state a five-year, $24 million grant to support the fundamental science needed to advance next generation manufacturing technologies, flexible electronics and robotics. The grant will also support the development of a greater STEM-literate workforce.
“This cooperative project will help bolster Kentucky’s economy, create jobs and put the Commonwealth at the forefront of automation and human-machine interaction,” said UofL president Neeli Bendapudi and UK president Eli Capilouto, in a joint statement. “Kentucky is at its best when our brightest minds are working together to answer our toughest questions. We are dreaming boldly, so that we might achieve greatly, and we can’t wait to see what this group will accomplish.”
The project, titled the Kentucky Advanced Partnership for Enhanced Robotics and Structures (or KAMPERS), will harness the collective research power of 40 multidisciplinary researchers from the eight Kentucky universities and colleges, which include UK, University of Louisville (UofL), Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), Kentucky State University (KSU), Morehead State University (MSU), Somerset Community College, Transylvania University (TU) and Western Kentucky University (WKU). Each of these institutions has developed niche areas of expertise to become leaders in next-generation manufacturing technologies.
The research results will have applications in the construction of components for robotic and autonomous systems in areas as diverse as elder care, home service, health care, education and other collaborative human-robot interactions.
“This (grant) pulls people together and allows Kentucky to jump into a leadership position — that doesn’t exist without this investment,” said Seth DeBolt, professor in the UK Department of Horticulture and co-investigator on the project. “We’ve got UK, the flagship, land-grant university; we’ve got a dynamic metro university, UofL; we have regional universities throughout the state; and we have a really good community and technical college system. We’re partnering with every one of those institutions in this effort and that’s what’s really incredible about this, because we have to build intellectual infrastructure that’s going to last generations.”
KAMPERS will hire, educate and mentor eight new faculty, and an average of five post docs and 28 graduate students per year. It will also offer opportunities for undergraduate researchers, creating a ripple effect of experience throughout the state and country.
The grant also aims to increase underrepresented minorities in these fields, including African Americans, Hispanics and women.
“It’s important that we don’t leave out parts of our talent pool,” said Rodney Andrews, director of Kentucky NSF EPSCoR, UK professor of chemical engineering and principal investigator of the project. “(That includes) underrepresented minority students; it may be first-generation students from Appalachia; or it may be students that are at the comprehensive universities who have a strong interest in doing research and contributing to a program like this.”
These efforts will be led by Czarena Crofcheck, a UK biosystems and agricultural engineering professor, who is serving as co-investigator for education and workforce development on the project.
“We have funding opportunities, so we invite proposals for a variety of things, including education outreach events, whether they’re for girls in STEM, or underrepresented minorities at the K-12 level,” Crofcheck said. “We also have funding available to support undergraduates who want to do internships, as well as research experiences that are tied to advanced manufacturing.”
Research for the KAMPERS project will fall into three categories: materials, device configuration and systems. Co-investigators of research include DeBolt, UK C. W. Hammond Professor of Chemistry John Anthony and UofL Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Dan Popa. Popa and his team are working in all three research categories, with a special emphasis in a new field of robotics known as collaborative robotics.
“As we introduce more robots in the manufacturing environment, they have to be more intelligent and they have to be chaperoned and taught by the workers —in a way that doesn’t take jobs but creates more opportunities,” Popa said. “The idea would be for robots and people to work together. Robots to use their strength, for instance, or the precision, and humans to use what they’re better at, which is intelligence, their decision-making capabilities and so on. How do they interface with one another? How can the two essentially learn to collaborate and more effectively get something done?”
Anthony’s team has an interest in hybridizing the printed electronic process with the 3D printing process.
“You could incorporate electronics within the structure of whatever it is you’re printing, whether it’s the skin of a drone or a prosthetic arm,” Anthony said. “That would allow you to incorporate things like sensing, logic and communication directly within the structure. And the user can decide exactly what configuration and conformation they want — you just plug and play, the same way you do with 3D printing, but with an electronic component. We can put electronics anywhere this way.”
These examples of advanced manufacturing research will be at the core of the KAMPERS project over the next five years — something Andrews says will place Kentucky at a much higher level of competitiveness.
“This is really not a five-year research project — it’s an investment over five years to carry on through the future,” Andrews said. “With this, we’re training students for those jobs of the future, to give them the opportunity here, in this state, to grow these new types of manufacturing and materials and systems, so that we can expand the state’s economy and have a real and significant impact on the state.”
EPSCoR will fund $20 million, while $2.5 million comes from matching dollars from the Cabinet of Economic Development. $1.5 million of additional commitments come from the institutions themselves.
Develop new sensing modalities designed to be integrated into structural robotic components, along with multi-functional materials required to serve as electronic interconnects and insulators. This theme is focused on developing the materials and fabrication processes needed to embed electronic function into structural components, and involves developing new materials, device configurations, and structural forms for demonstration of basic logic, sensing, and data processing arising from co-printed electronic and structural elements, along with on-board power generation and storage.
Fully integrate sensing, logic, and communication into structures using 3D printing and related techniques, and develop a general “toolkit” to allow these structures to take the wide variety of forms needed for robotic systems. This theme creates the printing environment and protocols for structurally-integrated electronics, including approaches to interconnecting devices, data input and output, and appropriate structural responses.
Explore synthetic biology approaches to yield structural materials with programmable lifetimes, to reduce generation of persistent electronic waste.
Test prototype enhanced robotic systems in manufacturing environments. This theme focuses on testing structurally-embedded electronic systems and controlling software in real-world applications. Testbeds can include co-robotic part manipulation & assembly, manufacturing of MEMS devices, and machine shop and maintenance environments. Feedback from this task will be essential to optimizing and enhancing components from the other themes.
Develop enhanced, adaptive software and feedback modes to maximize impact of increased sensing capabilities, and bring collaborative Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) to the level needed for advanced manufacturing and health care applications. This theme will utilize extensive sensor data from structures made in themes 1, 2, and 3 to create the next generation of Collaborative Human-Machine Interfaces (CHMIs), broadly defined as the intelligent connection between novel multimodal arrays of sensors monitoring users and the environment, and collaborative control decisions and actions taken by machines to assist their human users.
Attract, train, and retain a diverse workforce with specific robotics and advanced manufacturing knowledge and skills to meet industry needs and/or continue to higher levels of educational attainment.