Pushing the Envelope

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Today, about half of NIST's research either directly or indirectly supports manufacturing—in all its varieties, from chemical processing to aerospace to medical devices. Topics are equally diverse. They include the traditional, but with an advanced-technology twist—such as "smart" machine tools and sensors, and the exotic—such as self-assembled materials and products.

rapid prototyping

photo © Dainis Derics/ Shutterstock

Additive Manufacturing. NIST is helping to accelerate the progression of additive manufacturing (AM)—sometimes called three-dimensional printing—from a rapid-prototyping tool to a reliable and widely adopted fabrication method with the potential to revolutionize nearly all facets of manufacturing.

AM is a rapidly emerging group of technologies that build parts by joining materials, layer upon layer, to produce complex and custom geometries on demand directly from a computer model of the part. AM is poised to have a dramatic impact on US manufacturing by reducing lead time, allowing quick response to changing market demand, reducing material usage, and enabling innovation through fabrication of custom products with complex shapes.

The market for AM is projected to grow to $7 billion by 2020 ["Manufacturing Trends 2010'" Report by Strategic Insights, March 2010]. Biological and medical applications could make this market even larger.

NIST's research focuses on overcoming measurement science barriers that are holding back development and adoption of metal-based AM technologies, in particular. Better scientific understanding of material characteristics and process characteristics will point the way to improvements in AM processes and products. For example, industry now lacks a standardized way of reporting important properties of AM materials, such as stiffness, strength, and hardness.

NIST is developing tests and measurements that will provide essential elements of standards needed for AM equipment, processes, and materials. It is collaborating with U.S. industry and academia through the AM Consortium, and NIST researchers are participating on ASTM International Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies.

On-the-Fly Interoperability. Through its contributions to open standards activities, NIST also is helping to enhance the interconnectivity of manufacturing cells, manufacturing plants, and supply chains.

For example, NIST has developed a suite of testing tools to help ensure that inspection planning software produces correct, complete, plug-and-play programs for automated machines that make high-accuracy dimensional measurements of machined parts. The NIST test suite for the Dimensional Measuring Interface Standard (DMIS) is used by inspection software and measurement equipment suppliers and by U.S. aerospace, automotive, and heavy-equipment manufacturers. The tools help them to avoid errors and to save time and effort when integrating hardware and software technologies for assuring product quality. 

Down the road, these and other standards will open the way to on-the-fly interoperability, resulting in what some envision as an industrial Internet, which will enable agility in all facets of manufacturing.

Nanotechnology. NIST also is helping U.S. industry to be at the head of the pack in the global race to realize the transformative potential of nanotechnology, the science and engineering of the exceedingly small and a field rife with opportunities for innovation. 

AML entrance

photo HDR Architecture, Inc./Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing

Its Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) is the nation's only nanotechnology user facility established with a focus on commerce. CNST researchers and their collaborators are developing tools and know-how that will help manufacturers master all the steps from discovery to actual production of nanotechnology-based products.

The CNST also houses the NanoFab--a world-class, 5,600-square-meter (60,000-square-foot) shared resource for nanofabrication and measurement. With more than 1,800 square meters (19,000 square feet) of cleanroom laboratory space, the user facility contains more than 90 major state-of-the-art, commercial measurement and processing tools.

NIST Nanofab

photo by Kristen Dill

Over the past three years, the Center has trained over 90 senior research fellows and postdoctoral and student scientists. During this time, the number of researchers participating in projects at the CNST has more than tripled. In 2011 alone, over 1,400 researchers participated in projects at the CNST and its NanoFab, representing nearly 300 institutions, including more than 80 businesses.

These businesses range from Fortune 100 companies to start-ups striving to move their prototypes of promising nanotechnology products into mainstream markets. For example, one recent NanoFab user has nanoscale designs on the market for windshield wipers. Another is adapting a nanopositioning device invented at NIST for use as a simple in-home test to measure how long it takes a blood droplet to coagulate, a critical piece of information for the more than 30 million Americans taking blood thinners to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

In 2008, NIST issued the first-ever measurement reference standards in support of bio-nanotechnology research focusing on targeted delivery of potential cancer therapies. Gold spheres nominally 10, 30 and 60 nanometers in diameter, the nanoparticle reference materials were developed in cooperation with the National Cancer Institute's Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory


NIST image

NIST also issued, in late 2011, the world's first certified reference material for single-wall carbon nanotubes—nanoscale cylinders with exceptional properties eyed for a wide range of applications. A major impediment to realizing this promise is that making pure, uniform batches of this wunderkind material is notoriously difficult. The new single-wall carbon-nanotube reference material fills a critical void, providing companies and researchers a badly needed source for assessing and comparing single-wall nanotubes.

frequency comb illustration


Combs of Light. In some cases, new measurement capabilities, by themselves, are sources of innovation. Consider frequency combs, an output of research aimed at developing next-generation atomic clocks. NIST researchers played key roles in the development of these very precise tools for measuring different colors—or frequencies—of light. In fact, physicist John Hall of JILA, a joint institute of NIST and the University of Colorado at Boulder, shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to this increasingly useful technology.

More Manufacturing Inside. For a larger sampling of projects supporting an array of U.S. manufacturing industries and the diverse assortment of products they make—from ball bearings and biopharmaceuticals to coatings and cement and from semiconductors and solar cells to machine tools and magnetic memory devices, go to: [Sampling of NIST Manufacturing Research]

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Created February 15, 2012, Updated September 21, 2016