College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Manufacturers could save time and money with the help of new research led by the Clemson Composites Center


Three men stand at an orange table, talking about a display screen.
Srikanth Pilla, center, talks about manufacturing tools with Gang Li, left, and Feng Luo.
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The Clemson Composites Center is leading a new study that could help manufacturers save time and money while reducing their environmental impact– a project that adds to the center’s fast-growing portfolio of industry-guided automotive and advanced manufacturing research.

The team is developing new ways of 3D-printing low-cost manufacturing tools and is funding the research with $5.16 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and industry partners. Collaborators on the project include Honda Development & Manufacturing of America, Ohio State University and Additive Engineering Solutions, LLC.

The project will be based in the Clemson Composites Center’s cutting-edge facility in Greenville, South Carolina, placing it in the heart of a state where advanced manufacturing is a cornerstone of the economy.

Since its founding in 2017, the Clemson Composites Center has built a stellar reputation for developing new ways of making ultralight and recyclable automotive components out of composite materials.

With the new funding, the center’s researchers are using some of the same techniques to create not the components themselves but the tools that would be used to stamp sheets of metal or composites into components, said Srikanth Pilla, the project’s principal investigator, founding director of the Clemson Composites Center and the Jenkins Endowed Professor of Automotive Engineering.

The research could help lower the cost of tools, which are often expensive to develop and produce, he said.

“The composite tool is a low-cost technology,” Pilla said. “At the same time, you can recycle the tools we will be creating. That’s why we decided to repurpose innovations that happened in the Clemson Composite Center for these kinds of applications.”

Researchers expect that at the end of the project they will have technology that Original Equipment Manufacturers could rapidly commercialize and put into use in a real-world factory.

A big part of what makes the research unique is that the team will be using innovative techniques, including artificial intelligence, an approach called inverse design and additive manufacturing.

Feng Luo, the Marvin J. Pinson, Jr. ’46 Distinguished Professor in Clemson’s School of Computing, will help apply artificial intelligence to the project. Researchers will start with the desired performance of the tool they want to create, and artificial intelligence will help determine the ideal composite material architecture and optimal manufacturing process, an approach called inverse design.

“After we finish this project, our goal is to create artificial intelligence that will help determine how to build these tools, using computer models to make predictions,” said Luo, who is also the founding director of the Clemson Artificial Intelligence Research Institute for Science and Engineering (AIRISE). “This is a really exciting interdisciplinary project. We’re excited to see how AI can help advance research in different disciplines.”

Gang Li, a Clemson mechanical engineering professor and Clemson Composites Center associate director, will use computational modeling and analysis simulation to help answer important questions, such as whether the tools researchers are trying to develop meet design requirements. The approach allows researchers to test their ideas even before building a prototype, helping save time and money.

For Li, the project is an extension of his previous work with the Clemson Composites Center. He has also worked to help develop an ultralight weight vehicle door, advance 3D printing, modernize manufacturing machinery and reduce the weight of an SUV part that is interchangeably called the body-in-white or glider.

“Our research is looking at the entire development and design of the vehicle, and that excites me a lot,” he said. “We’re not just looking at one small part, we’re looking at everything we can.”

The project is the Clemson Composites Center’s latest collaboration with Honda Development & Manufacturing of America. They previously worked together on other projects, including the glider and the ultralight door, which recently was recognized by the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office.

Ryan Hahnlen, a principal engineer at Honda Development & Manufacturing of America, said he looks forward to collaborating with the Clemson team again.

“This project brings new opportunities to develop new products for our customers more quickly and efficiently, while saving costs up and down the supply chain,” Hahnlen said. “With this new research we will be better positioned to reduce carbon emissions and be more flexible to changing market conditions.”

The research is also the Clemson Composites Center’s latest collaboration with Ohio State University. Leading the research for Ohio State is Farhang Pourboghrat, professor and chair of the Integrated Systems Engineering Department.

“This DOE funding will allow the team of researchers from Clemson and Ohio State universities to collaboratively tackle the high costs of the tooling needed for the stamping of small batches of sheet metal parts,” Pourboghrat said. “By utilizing experimentally validated computational models and artificial intelligence, the team will develop inverse design methodologies to keep the cost of fabricating stamping tools for the production of sheet metal parts low, which will have a positive impact on automotive companies.”

Andrew Bader, vice president and co-founder of Additive Engineering Solutions, said that based on past experiences of similar projects, the team is well positioned to take on the challenges of this research initiative.

“Additive Engineering Solutions is a global leader in large format additive manufacturing services for tooling, end-use parts and large-scale prototyping,” Bader said. “We look forward to working with the team to innovate, thereby helping us better meet industry needs.”

Several Clemson officials said the new project would bolster the University’s reputation for outstanding innovation. They included Laine Mears, acting chair of the Department of Automotive Engineering.

“Clemson is a leader in industry-guided research, particularly in the automotive and advanced-manufacturing fields,” Mears said. “Srikanth is an accomplished team-builder and scholar, and he is uniquely suited to lead this project.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at Clemson, said the research funding is well deserved.

“This project further solidifies Clemson University’s position as a global leader in mobility and advanced-manufacturing innovation,” he said. “I congratulate Dr. Pilla and the entire team on securing the grant. They are well positioned for maximum impact.”

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