Additive manufacturing firm HAMR employs an interdisciplinary approach to solving unmet needs

March 27, 2023

By Mark Shortt

When a researcher, scientist, or engineer is brimming with pride over a promising technology they’ve developed, the last thing they want is to see it go to waste. But that’s what happens when the interest in using a product or technology doesn’t match the energy that was invested in its development.

One company that’s determined to avoid that fate is HAMR Industries, LLC, a Clinton, Pennsylvania-based developer of advanced materials and manufacturing processes for components that function in harsh or extreme environments. HAMR, whose letters stand for “Highly Advanced Materials Research,” was founded by Michael Schmitt, Ph.D., and Jeremy Schreiber, Ph.D., after they finished graduate school at Pennsylvania State University.

“We operate primarily in the development of advanced materials and manufacturing processes,” said Schmitt in an interview with Design-2-Part. “And the number of applications that require advanced materials is vast.”

As researchers at Penn State, Schmitt and Schreiber had worked on a mix of federally and commercially funded research that was largely successful. But they had never seen their success reflected in an actual product. By the time they emerged from their research, they had developed useful skills, considerable knowledge, and even some intellectual property (IP). They were also familiar with the Small Business Research Funding landscape, Schmitt said.

“We thought to ourselves, ‘We have a lot of what we feel are good ideas, a lot of skills, a good network. Why don’t we try to push some of this technology out of the lab and get it into practice?’ And that’s really how HAMR was born, with that idea of taking technology, taking research, and moving it from the lab into practice.”

HAMR will have plenty of support in those efforts at its new home in Neighborhood 91 (N91), an innovation hub at the Pittsburgh International Airport described as “the first end-to-end additive manufacturing production campus,” in a release from the Allegheny County Airport Authority. Situated on airport property, N91 is said to provide all the elements of advanced manufacturing on a single campus, offering significant opportunities for innovation through collaboration with co-tenants in its additive manufacturing ecosystem.

Besides HAMR, current tenants include Arencibia, the developer of noble gas recycling technology for additive manufacturing and powder metallurgy applications; Wabtec Corporation, a global provider of equipment, systems, and value-added services for the freight and transit rail industries, as well as mining, marine, and industrial markets; and Cumberland Additive, which offers series production of parts and engineering design services in metals and polymer materials, using powder bed fusion technology.

The N91 campus is also home to Metal Powder Works, a developer of high-quality powders, and R.J. Lee Group, an industrial forensics analytical laboratory and scientific consulting firm.

In HAMR’s area of focus (advanced materials and processes for extreme environments), problems are often interdisciplinary. They require a more fundamental approach towards material development and a more holistic approach to understand how systems will work together, Schmitt said.

“We might be focusing on, say, one component in an aircraft, but that component has to be integrated with the rest of the aircraft and all the other components. So we have to understand not only how to make it, but how to fit it in the rest of the system.”

Design-2-Part spoke with Michael Schmitt recently about HAMR’s core capabilities and some of the opportunities for collaboration and innovation that its new home in N91 presents. Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

Design-2-Part: What are some of HAMR’s core capabilities and services that you’d like prospective customers to know about?

Michael Schmitt: I really want to highlight that our focus is to be more of a problem solver, rather than a solution looking for a problem.

Our core capability is, of course, in additive manufacturing. We have our WarpSPEE3D Cold Spray Additive Manufacturing System (CSAM) that can produce large format metallic parts. We do additive manufacturing of ceramics—large format ceramics. These are technical ceramics, high temperature ceramics, things like radomes and windows, as well as insulators. We can use [WarpSPEE3D] all the way down to very fine featured things, like solid oxide fuel cell parts, as well as general polymeric composite 3D printing.

We have these capabilities in house, but the important thing is, when we are trying to solve these materials problems and these processing problems, we’re not limiting ourselves to what we have in house. We have an extensive team of collaborators at national labs, at universities, and now, at N91, where we can leverage our partners to utilize their capabilities.

So, if the tools that we have in house really can’t address the need or provide the solution that we think we need for our customer’s problem, we can utilize other people’s tools. If directed energy deposition, or powder bed, or laser 3D printing looks like the better solution, we’re happy to explore that and utilize that tool. We’re not married to just what we have in house. Our goal is to find a solution to our customer’s problem, and to do that wherever and however we need to.

Our focus is getting technology out of the lab and into practice. But there’s a lot of technology out there. There are a lot of ideas and people that we work with, as collaborators and in house. So we’re not married to any single thing.

When we’re trying to move a technology forward, it’s selecting the right technology, the right fit for the problem. Having that humble approach is critical. We don’t know everything. I know that I’m not the smartest guy in the world—usually not even the smartest guy in the room. So, you build a team around you that has different capabilities than you, that has different backgrounds, a diverse skill set, and a diverse background. Then you can start to address problems in a much more holistic manner than a team that’s solely focused on commercializing the one technology that they focus on.

D2P: What specific areas of engineering or research are involved in the work that you do?

MS: From a background perspective, it’s a lot of materials science, a lot of engineering and mechanics. We’re using that towards applications like hypersonics, where we’re looking at thermal transport and thermal protection of very high-velocity aircraft or objects.

We might work with a university that has some of the capabilities for testing that aren’t available elsewhere. Or we might work with a national lab that has the capabilities, the experience, and the background. We use that to bolster our capabilities, to build a stronger team than we would have on our own. That allows us to attack these problems in a different manner than they’re typically addressed by other companies. By having these collaborations and by utilizing them in all of our work, it allows us to get a much stronger team and a much stronger design capability.

D2P: You mentioned the opportunities for collaboration that N91 presents. Are there any other reasons why you decided to expand to N91?

MS: We were interested in joining the additive ecosystem. Part of that comes from our understanding that there’s a need for sustainment for DoD activities. That’s one of the unmet needs that we see.

Sustainment is another aspect of where we function as a company—not only developing technology, but maintaining technology that has already been developed. But maybe it isn’t able to be acquired by customers anymore, whether that’s DoD or industry. So sustainment is an important area and we’ve seen that recently with all the supply chain shock from COVID and everything else, things that are happening in Ukraine.

For N91, we have this additive ecosystem in place that is perfect to address sustainment, and it’s also a great ecosystem for developing these new materials and these new manufacturing processes that we have. That’s accomplished through Neighborhood 91 having the upstream and downstream support. You have neighbors, other companies on the campus that are like minded, so you can start leveraging resources and know-how. They’re operating in similar but different areas. They’re not your competitors, so you don’t have to worry as much about sharing, necessarily. You can really collaborate with them and leverage resources.

D2P: How does N91 help foster potential innovations by HAMR?

MS: We’re a small business, a startup. So a big thing that N91 does for us, outside of the benefits of location, is that we have now the ability to focus on what we’re doing. That’s developing materials and manufacturing processes.

Now, we can offload a lot of the upstream. We have suppliers on site for gas, and even for feedstock, potentially. Some of our neighbors can supply that material, and locally, we can get that from the region. As the ecosystem grows, we’ll eventually be able to offload things like machining and heat treating, and characterization, to other partners.

That will allow us to efficiently spend our time and resources on the development and on the materials, the things that we’re good at and that we really care about, and less on a lot of the supporting side. That’s still important, but it takes our focus away from the problems that we’re trying to attack.

So it allows us, in the end, to be not only more efficient in our time, but more efficient in how we spend our money and what we can focus on, which helps us be successful. The other thing is having the neighbors. I mentioned before the ability to leverage resources and not just use what we have, as an important factor for how I think we’ll be successful. And part of that is having these neighbors nearby.

We can utilize their equipment and they can utilize our equipment—things like machining and the actual AM equipment. Maybe their style of AM doesn’t work for a customer, but ours does. We’re happy to share, and, likewise, the whole neighborhood can leverage each other. We all see the value in that, and I think that’s a critical aspect to N91—being able to leverage your partners.

D2P: Could you tell us a little more about the WarpSPEE3D Cold Spray Additive Manufacturing Machine that you acquired recently? What do you like about the machine, and what are some of the large format applications that you might use it for?

MS: We’re excited about it. To date, we’ve utilized a lot of the university partners to do our manufacturing and our fabrication, so this is our first large piece of equipment that we’ll be able to use to fabricate what we need, when we need it.

What we like about the WarpSPEE3D is, it’s large format, so we can make large parts up to a meter diameter, by about point seven (0.7) meter build area. It’s a very large build volume. It’s got a rapid build time—it’s about an order of magnitude faster than something like powder bed fusion or some of the laser based systems. So you can build parts very, very quickly and you can build them economically.

The WarpSPEE3D utilizes compressed air as its feedstock gas, so we can build dense metal parts with performance better than cast and approaching wrought [metal]. We can do that in a cost effective and very rapid manner. So, that’s really an attractive group of properties for any kind of manufacturing equipment, and we’re excited about that.

Then there’s cold spray, in general, as a technique. By not melting the feedstock, it allows us to approach new sorts of chemistries and new sorts of problems that maybe would be challenging or not feasible for some of the other additive techniques. We’re able to do thingvs like functional grading and blending of different metal alloys that, in the case of melt based processing, just aren’t feasible. Things like bi-metallics, or layering unlike [dissimilar] metals are completely feasible with cold spray, but are challenging, if not impossible, with the other manufacturing techniques.

We actually have a program that recently started, where we’re looking at composite alloy systems for energetic applications. The only way you could realistically fabricate these with high quality is with cold spray.

So it’s an enabling technique, and we’re really excited to move into this. We have a lot of experience with cold spray, but less so with additive, so we’re excited to see what we can do in additive.

As for large format, a lot of our current programs are towards the smaller size scale, but we see a large need for DoD applications. They have a lot of forgings and castings of large parts, and it’s either difficult or impossible for them to find replacements for them. So having the supply chain resilience is important to them. We think the WarpSPEE3D would allow us to fabricate those parts and insert ourselves into that supply chain, and meet that unmet need at this stage.

To give you a specific example, we’re working on utilizing cold spray additive for rocket engines and space applications. We feel strongly that this will be an enabling technology for additively or 3D produced rocket engine components. Like I said, there are things that cold spray can do that the other additive techniques can’t.

So it’s a hot topic right now. If you’re into additive manufacturing or into space and rocket engines, you’ll have heard about 3D printed rockets. That’s very common, but utilizing cold spray for that is definitely new and novel. I think it will allow us to do things that the other companies, frankly, cannot because it’s just not possible with melt based processes.

D2P: One of the benefits of your location at N91 is that some of the nearby universities and research centers are focused on things like machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). How could these technologies impact additive manufacturing going forward?

MS: As additive manufacturing grows and continues to mature, they (ML and AI) will become more and more integral to additive. On the research and science side, they’re really starting to attack problems with them and are beginning to see results. It’s starting as process monitoring, and then modifying the process in situ.

So as you’re building a part, if there’s an error in the process or some sort of disturbance in the process, you can monitor that and potentially address it—and fix your part while you’re printing it. You understand that there might be a defect and, later on, you can quantify how that might impact the final performance of whatever widget you’re making. That’s enabled very strongly by machine learning, artificial intelligence, and advanced robotics, and Pittsburgh, as a region, is home to that.

Carnegie Mellon University is one of the world’s biggest players in advanced robotics and AI / ML. Likewise, Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) is a really strong contributor. The ARM Institute (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute) is also headquartered in Pittsburgh. It’s focused on funding that kind of research, that kind of development and technology transition.

That fits right into what we’re going to try to do. We can take that know-how, that knowledge, and directly translate it right out of the university and into our production. So it’s an enormous boon to have that locally, and be able to transition it as easily as we hope we’ll be able to.

D2P: Neighborhood 91 is said to be the first development to condense and connect all components of the AM supply chain into a powerful production ecosystem. How does this ecosystem work to accelerate the additive manufacturing supply chain for customers that need parts?

MS: It’s really the consolidation part that does this, and it’s being in the right region for it. And I think Pittsburgh is the right region for it.

With additive manufacturing, you automatically cut out a lot of time because you can go right from CAD to part, potentially, depending on your process. But then, N91 itself adds a lot of additional benefits in that you have all that upstream and downstream consolidation, either on campus or within the surrounding 20 miles.

So you can get your feedstock in that day. The process gas and air is on site, provided by Arencibia, so you have the feedstock and the raw materials on site that you need to do your process. You can store them on site, you can access them on site. So you can get started manufacturing much faster than even a traditional AM focused business would be able to.

Then you have the downstream parts as well. You have finishing, you have machining, you have heat treatment. You have characterization labs—companies like R.J. Lee. So you can quickly produce a part and then get that part finished.

You’re located right next to the airport, so you can get that part shipped anywhere in the world, next day, after you’ve made it and machined it. So every step of the supply chain, you’re saving time by having everything consolidated. You don’t have to ship raw materials. When you finish your part, you don’t have to ship it to a machinist. The machinist is right down the street or, potentially, on campus as the ecosystem grows. Then, after you’re done machining, you don’t have to ship it to a heat treatment facility or vice versa, depending on your process.

So, at every stage of production and final finishing of your sample, you’re saving days or weeks for shipping time, especially as we get into large format parts—the parts that are a meter or larger, where things are a little more complex for shipping. You’re not just putting this on the FedEx truck. So, you can really start to save time, and time is money. That’s really one of the benefits of N91, is having everything consolidated in one campus and in one region.

D2P: What possibilities do you foresee for partnering with your new co-tenants at N91?

MS: We can leverage each other’s resources, and those additional capabilities help all of us. Instead of having to go out and get the capital to acquire a new laser powder bed machine, we can, potentially, work with our neighbors and utilize their system to prove something out to decide if that’s really a direction that we want to go. And likewise, if they’re interested in cold spray but aren’t interested in acquiring a system, and they just want to know if it’s going to work for their process, they can try it out on our equipment.

We see that as a really important partnership and collaborative capability that’s available to us, and that I think all of us are going to work on. Cumberland Additive does a lot of 3D printing, has a lot of equipment and finishing, so I think we’ll work heavily together. And likewise with Wabtec. For us, it’s having access to different capabilities that we don’t have, and providing them access to our capabilities and our knowledge.

One of the other companies, Metal Powder Works, has an innovative manufacturing method for providing the feedstock powders. That’s a very straightforward collaboration where, ‘Hey, can your feedstock work for our equipment?’ So, I think everybody has a natural fit to work together.

D2P: Your website says that HAMR combines interdisciplinary employee backgrounds with computational and experimental approaches, as well as application-focused development and an emphasis on collaboration. How do those factors work together to help HAMR generate new and novel solutions?

MS: The interdisciplinary approach is really important. Again, it goes back to approaching this with some degree of humility and realizing that ‘I don’t know everything,’ and no individual is going to. It means building a team that can shore up the gaps and has different knowledge sets, different skill sets, and comes from a diverse background. It’s not only the knowledge and skills, but how you approach a problem—what experiences you’ve had in your life.

Having a diverse team then allows you to approach problems differently, look at problems differently, and eventually, provide different solutions, which gives us more capabilities and more potential avenues to solving problems.

It’s not just who we have at HAMR. It’s also our network. We work heavily with university collaborators, with national labs, with NASA, and with other research organizations. So it’s building a team of partners as well, who have knowledge, backgrounds, and facilities that you can leverage. That’s an important part of having this diverse skill set, this diverse team, which then allows us to solve these interdisciplinary problems.

For the computational-experimental side of things, I think it’s just a natural progression of where research is going in this day and age. As a small business, we really can’t afford to just blithely throw money at the wall and see what sticks in terms of experiments. We have to be intelligent with what experiments we run, how we approach our problems, and how we approach our research programs.

Computational approaches allow us to first approach a problem digitally, look at a couple of solutions, and start our down-selection process before we move into the more experimental and more costly experimental stage of the work. Every program we have, essentially, combines computational and experimental approaches, and they usually provide a feedback loop with each other. The computational informs the experimental. We use those results to bolster the computational approach, and then that feeds into a second round of design for the materials or the process.

For application focused development, it’s just understanding where this (the technology) is going to be used. When you’re trying to get technology out of the lab and into practice, you can’t forget what the end goal is. I think that’s part of the reason why technology gets stuck at universities, because it’s focused on the science. Academics tend to sometimes focus too much on the science. The goal is to transition it.

We can come up with the greatest material that’s ever been thought of, but if there’s no way to make it, it’s really not very useful. It’s understanding ‘Where are we going to use this, and how is it going to be used? How are we going to make this? How is this going to be integrated into some larger system?’ That way, as we’re developing our solution, we keep those things in mind. And collaboration, of course, is important for every step of our process.

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