Dr. Chris Williams, Ph.D., and the Virginia Tech DREAMSLab

Dr. Chris Williams, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering in the Department of Engineering Education. Dr. Williams also directs the DREAMSLab at Virginia Tech (Design, Research and Education for additive manufacturing Systems), which contains eight different 3D printers representing five different 3D printing technologies.

Afinia at the Virginia Tech DreamsLabA strong proponent of additive manufacturing and 3D printing, Dr. Williams was interested in developing a way for K-12 STEM teachers to bring the technology to their schools. As part of its outreach program, the DREAMSLab holds 3D printing workshops for K-12 STEM teachers at the National Science Foundation (NSF) center for e-design’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET). During the week-long session, the teachers are given an Afinia Desktop 3D Printer to use and take with them for their students. Here are a few images of STEM teachers working on their Afinia 3D printers in a past session.

According to the National Science Foundation, (NSF) “The goal is to help build long-term collaborative partnerships between K-12 STEM teachers, college faculty, and the NSF university research community by involving the teachers and college faculty in engineering research and helping them translate their research experiences and new knowledge into classroom activities.”

On October 1, 2012, Dr. Williams received $450,000 in NSF funding for an innovation-based manufacturing program with the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Part of these funds were put to use by developing and hosting several dozen high school STEM teachers for a week of intense in-service training on how to introduce 3D printing into their classrooms.

According to the NSF, “The Directorate for Engineering (ENG) and the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program supports the active involvement of K-12 STEM teachers and college faculty in order to bring knowledge of engineering, and technological innovation into their classrooms.”

Afinia at the Virginia Tech DreamsLabDr. Williams said, “What really gets me excited about additive manufacturing is that it can fundamentally change the way we design products and get young people excited. For example, we have a group of mechanical engineering students who are re-designing an autonomous quadCopter. Their intricate honeycomb superstructure is very lightweight, very strong and could only be made with 3D printing. No longer are we constrained by traditional manufacturing and their rule sets.”

Dr. Williams has a Renaissance-Man view of what engineers will need to know in the future. The traditional ping-pong approach of a design engineer and a manufacturing engineer sending models back-and-forth is outdated. The engineer of the future will be educated in, not only design, but additive manufacturing, material science and ergonomics. “The designer will be the manufacturer and vice versa.” is one of Dr. Williams’ favorite statements.

Here’s an example of why this process is needed: Dr. Williams had a group of engineering students that asked, “Why am I carrying around this mass of keys? What if we could design a swiss-army-like device that we could use instead?”

Dr. Williams said, “They came up with a beautiful design that won a Best In Show. As a reward, we printed it in our DREAMSLab. The model came out wonderfully, except that it was about 4-1/2” long. Now, when they saw it on a CAD screen it looked great. When they put it in their pocket it just didn’t work. Designs need to be created in an environment where they are more closely coupled to manufacturing capability and the end-user’s application.”

Given his large amount of additive manufacturing experience, Dr. Williams’ DREAMSLab is the go-to source at Virginia Tech for engineers who need sophisticated 3D models to further their research. The DREAMSLab mantra: “If you can design it, we can make it!”

About Dr. Chris Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Chris Williams, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering in the Department of Engineering Education. He received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 2000 from the University of Florida, Gainesville and his M.S. (2003) and Ph.D. (2007) from Georgia Tech.

He was awarded the 2012 International Outstanding Young Researcher in freeform and additive manufacturing by the International Solid Freeform Manufacturing Association.