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 ?-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.

The 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.