University of Wisconsin–Madison


Advanced nano-cutter to boost emerging materials research at UW-Madison

The University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering is the new home of a unique machine that is capable of 3D milling precise to one nanometer. The machine, called the ROBONANO α-0iB, is the first of its kind in North America, and it brings extremely advanced technological capabilities that could represent the future of advanced manufacturing.

The ROBONANO, which is on a multi-year loan from the Japanese robotics manufacturer FANUC, arrived on Sept. 1, 2016, and is housed in the laboratory of Sangkee Min, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UW-Madison and a faculty member in the Grainger Institute for Engineering. Officials from FANUC traveled from Japan for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house for the ROBONANO, held Sept. 11, 2016. The ROBONANO’s extremely precise capabilities offer Min and colleagues exciting new research opportunities, which he hopes will open up improved and novel approaches to the manufacturing of everything from semiconductors to toys and mobile devices to scientific instruments.

The ROBONANO’s superiority over previous generations of similar machines is obvious: Its ability to cut at the nanoscale is two orders of magnitude more precise than most machines used in advanced manufacturing today.

Image of Sangkee Min and ROBONANOThe ROBONANO is a 5-axis machine that uses non-contact air bearings, which gives it nearly limitless configurations for cutting, scribing and milling materials. Where it’s truly exceptional, however, is in its nano precision. Many materials have different properties at the nanoscale, meaning the ROBONANO can potentially handle emerging and existing materials in new and useful ways.

Min will use the machine’s unique capabilities to explore its suitability for manufacturing emerging materials, as well as currently available materials like synthetic sapphire, which is a promising shatter-proof alternative to glass for screens on devices such as tablets and smartphones. Synthetic sapphire—which is made from heating aluminum oxide to extremely high temperatures—currently is difficult to manufacture at large scales because it is very brittle and difficult to handle. However, Min has already conducted initial research on synthetic sapphire with the ROBONANO machine in Japan and discovered that the material sometimes behaves ductile when handled at the extremely tiny nano level. “Many materials have different properties at the nanoscale that create all sorts of different possibilities that aren’t possible with conventional machines,” he says.

It’s primarily these differences in the physical properties of materials at the nanoscale that Min wants to explore, both in emerging materials and in materials like sapphire that require alternative handling methods to become truly manufacturable.

Min also hopes to explore how the machine can help open up new possibilities for manufacturing design. Most designers are constrained by manufacturing limitations that can choke creativity and slow innovation. Min points to smartphone design as a prime example of this “design for manufacturing” paradigm leading to stale product lines.

“The design of the Apple iPhone has not changed very much since from the first one to the latest iPhone that was just announced,” Min says. “It’s the same for a lot of products. Vehicles are the same. A Ford looks like a Ford.”

That’s because manufacturers have long-term investments in supply chains that are difficult and costly to switch on a dime. The capital risk for changing a manufacturing process is often too high. Min says he hopes his research with the ROBONANO will identify ways to speed up the process and becomes one of the enabling technologies for a new manufacturing paradigm—what Min calls “manufacturing for design.”

“I want to be able to ask the manufacturer, ‘what is your perfect design?’ And be able to provide that,” Min says.

Among successes he’s already had: He recently helped a national laboratory vastly improve the imaging capabilities of a microscopic instrument it manufactures.

The ROBONANO has existed more than for 10 years in Japan, where the semiconductor industry is already using it to improve its products. Min says that the semiconductor industry is one among many industries that can benefit from the ROBONANO’s capabilities. He’s also been approached by the toymaker Lego and other well-known brands to help improve their products. “The opportunities are almost limitless for improving products and manufacturing processes with this machine,” Min says.


Focus on new faculty: Sangkee Min, manufacturing the future of innovative design



Sangkee Min doesn’t merely want to push the envelope of possibility for manufacturing; rather, he hopes to redefine the envelope entirely, ushering in a new era of truly innovative designs.

Product development involves an iterative dialogue between designers and manufacturing engineers. Oftentimes, the brains behind creative new concepts find themselves at odds with the operators of the machines that must produce the finished object. Cost, material and manufacturing limitations require designers to repeatedly rework their original visions before the final product leaves the assembly line. This back-and-forth postpones progress and stifles innovation.

During the late 1980s, a new paradigm called “design for manufacturability” emerged. Engineers sought to educate designers about manufacturing processes. Designers began conceptualizing products with an eye toward maximal yield for minimal cost. Under this framework, the average time for an innovation to come to market has drastically decreased. However, seeing design as simply another cost-reduction strategy stifles innovation and constrains creativity. Designers reign in their ideas to conform to existing manufacturing constraints, as industrial engineers resist implementing changes that could allow for pioneering products.

“Manufacturing engineers are conservative,” says Min, who in fall 2015 joined UW-Madison as a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and in the Grainger Institute for Engineering. “They don’t want to invest capital in changing machinery to embrace new techniques because they are constantly under pressure to reduce costs.” He says that the industrial environment offers engineers scant opportunities to explore or adapt new technologies in their daily practice.

The resistance to change on the production side, combined with designers restraining their ideas to conform to existing limitations, leads to a spiral of stagnation.

Min wants to break this cycle. “Everyone is stuck with outdated concepts about what is possible. The market isn’t competing with new ideas,” he says.

Rather than framing design as one more opportunity to cut costs, Min aspires to flip the script. “If you can deliver something good that the consumer will buy, then you are the value-added process,“ he says. He envisions a future where designers, unencumbered by manufacturing constraints, have ultimate freedom to produce their most avant-garde ideas.

With that mantra in mind, Min comes to the Grainger Institute to advance a new theory of concept-creation called “manufacturing for design.”

Manufacturing for design dictates that rather than revising a concept due to manufacturing hurdles, engineers should work together to overcome traditional challenges standing in the way. Min aspires to bring together experts across a panoply of manufacturing processes to attack any problems from multiple angles. Drawing from his experience in industry and the expertise of UW-Madison faculty, he hopes to create a network of innovation from a huge knowledge base, including specialists in photolithography, metal cutting, injection molding, etching, additive manufacturing and advanced manufacturing in order to produce truly innovative designs.

The applications of manufacturing for design range from high-performance consumer products to scientific instruments. Min recently applied this idea to producing components for electron microscopy at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. The scientists working within the group said that they typically met a wall of rejection from engineers when they asked for high-performance precision parts within their instruments. Rather than telling the physicists that their vision for improvements to the reactor was impossible, Min applied his own expertise in nanoscale cutting to find a way to fabricate the requested parts. His open-mindedness not only advanced the field of manufacturing, but fostered discovery by providing a new tool to researchers.

Min comes to UW-Madison with extensive experience ranging from his affiliation with Keio University, one of Japan’s centers for engineering excellence, to his time as executive director of the Manufacturing Institute for Research on Advanced Initiatives (MIRAI) in Berkeley, California. He hopes to contribute to society by helping with innovative designs, and sees the Grainger Institute—and the university overall—as the perfect arena to further his vision.

“In an industry setting, manufacturing for design is a huge risk because I cannot guarantee a result. It is research-focused manufacturing at this moment,” says Min.

While working within the university, he plans to interact with designers and engineers to identify current challenges, which he will translate into research projects. “Wisconsin is the only place I’d be able to do this kind of work,” he says. “It requires a huge amount of collaborative effort, not just one professor driving research.”

With the support of the Grainger Institute and the entire engineering college as resources, Min hopes to explore unprecedented frontiers in manufacturing. He doesn’t merely hope to push the envelope; he wants to refold the envelope into an innovative, unorthodox, entirely new shape.

Author: Sam Million-Weaver

Focus on new faculty: Xin Wang, untying knotty systems

Xin Wang1 (1).jpg

Where others see hopelessly foundering logistics, Xin Wang sees the possibility of creating sustainable and resilient systems for things like developing biofuels and keeping cities operating when disaster strikes.

Wang, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering and an affiliate of the new Grainger Institute for Engineering, brings an interdisciplinary approach to solving these large-scale problems.

“This is a very exciting opportunity,” says Wang. “My focus and background is interdisciplinary. I plan to collaborate with colleagues in the Grainger Institute, those in industrial engineering and other departments.”

When Wang was a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his research—mainly funded by the National Science Foundation—honed in on the creation of biofuels, which is wrought with competing factors and uncertainty.

For example, Wang developed mathematical models to examine ways in which the government can better design policies to answer challenging questions in the development of corn-based and other cellulosic biofuels, such as how to maintain food security and develop new energy sources in ways that are environmentally sustainable.

“Our framework can be applied successfully to solve issues when there are competition, reliability and interdependence issues,” he says.

To validate his research, Wang employed a multi-user, web-based simulation game in which players assumed the roles of various stakeholders who make individual decisions on use of farmland, biofuel investments and government mandates and subsidies.

“This software can help us collect data that simulates reality, and help show how various decisions by stakeholders affect the entire system,” Wang says. “We have to consider not only the economic impact, but the social and environmental impacts. That will help develop the biofuel industry in a sustainable way.”

Wang says the model can be applied to a variety of complex systems, such as infrastructure or manufacturing systems. Recently, Wang began working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the mathematical model to analyze the reliability of urban systems.

Specifically, Wang researches how the government plans to protect critical urban infrastructure. He hopes the research will help the government evaluate adverse impacts and enhance preparedness and reliability of key urban systems.

During a natural or man-made disaster, Wang says events may cascade—causing a potentially disastrous effect. Some of the effects hit the physical infrastructure and some affect the supply of resources.

For example, a power outage could cause electricity-dependent water systems to shut down. In turn, people might travel to seek water, pinching fuel supplies and resulting in gridlocked traffic.

“When you consider the problem at first, it may not seem complicated, but when you factor in people’s behavior, it can become significant and disaster could happen,” Wang says. “If the disruption caused by people’s behavior is at a critical infrastructure, it may amplify the disruption.”

The research will help the government know the social impact of infrastructure breakdowns and respond accordingly.

“We hope to tell, based on the infrastructure disruption, what is the social impact? Then the government can have an idea about the reliability of a city and which infrastructure is the most critical to protect,” Wang says.

Inherent in Wang’s research is a depth of knowledge in logistics systems and supply chain management, key components in advanced manufacturing, one of the focuses of the Grainger Institute. The institute, created in 2014 with a $25 million gift from The Grainger Foundation, serves as an incubator for transdisciplinary research.

“Advanced manufacturing is not only using the innovative technology to improve production,” says Wang. “But it also needs to use successful management methodologies to enhance supply chain efficiency and reduce supply uncertainty or energy usage and environmental impact.”