A new state-of-the-art Additive Manufacturing Laboratory (AM Lab) opened at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) on Tuesday, boasting a globally unrivaled collection of 3D printers.

The Insstek MX 1000, the biggest 3D printer in Russia and one of just 15 in the world. Photo: Sk.ru.

More than 100 representatives of Russian and international industry gathered at Skoltech for the opening of the lab, which will operate within Skoltech’s Center for Design, Manufacturing and Materials (CDMM).

The new lab is unique in that it contains three technologies in one room: researchers can experiment with metal, ceramic and polymers, CDMM director Iskander Akhatov explained.

Iskander Akhatov, director of Skoltech's Center for Design, Manufacturing and Materials, speaks at the lab's opening. Photo: Sk.ru.

Among the lab’s collection of 3D printers are:

  • The Insstek MX 1000, the biggest 3D printer in Russia and one of only 15 such models in the world. The Insstek specializes in printing large-scale parts from various types of metal for use in the aviation, automotive, medical and space industries. The Insstek can make repairs directly within its printing chamber. If, for example, a turbine blade is chipped or cracked, the blade can be inserted into the chamber, and the Insstek can print material directly into the gap to fill it.
  • The Trumpf TruPrint 1000, a smaller-scale metal printer with a proven track record and solid global reputation for its ability to efficiently create components and parts from various types of metal.
  • The 3D Ceram Ceramaker 900, which uses stereolithographic technology to print a broad array of ceramic materials, including zirconia, alumina, hydroxyapatite and more. This is estimated to be one of about 30 models in the world. Ceramic is increasingly coveted in industries ranging from aerospace and electronics to medicine, in which it can be used to manufacture custom-made medical implants, including artificial joints and bone replacements.
  • The Plastic Projet printer, which will be used to test the logistics of larger projects in advance using plastic.

“In particular, the metal and ceramic printers are unique and in very high demand, and I’m sure they’ll attract interest from industry,” said Fardad Azarmi, a professor of mechanical engineering at North Dakota State University, who played an instrumental role in establishing the lab.

“One of the main goals of the lab will be to promote these technologies in Russia and around the world,” he said.

Going forward, the AM Lab will collaborate with the Swiss technology group Oerlikon and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) to bolster its equipment and bridge the gaps between academia and industry. The three parties began working on collaboration about a year ago, when Skoltech President Alexander Kuleshov met with the president of TUM and with Michael Süss, chairman of Oerlikon’s board of directors, to sign a non-binding cooperation agreement.

Skoltech President Alexander Kuleshov. Photo: Sk.ru.

“The document did not oblige us to anything because Skoltech didn’t have anything in particular to offer at the time, but each of the parties had its own trump card,” Kuleshov said at the lab’s opening on Tuesday.

“We have a superb team in the field of mathematical modeling, while Oerlikon is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of new materials and related technologies, and is interested in developing 3D printing technologies. TUM is a leading German university with excellent records in mechanics, machine building and engineering. The result was a very successful triumvirate. In a year, we were completely ready to cooperate,” he said.

Next year – by which time Skoltech should have moved into its giant purpose-built campus –  Oerlikon will supply the lab with the company’s own equipment, and cooperation won’t stop there, said Professor Süss, who was present at the lab’s opening.

Michael Süss, chairman of the board of directors of the Swiss tech conglomerate Oerlikon. Photo: Sk.ru.

“For the first time in the last few centuries, humankind is facing the choice of a new kind of manufacturing,” said Süss.

“This is an enormous challenge, and success is not yet guaranteed. One thing is clear: if we try to obtain results on our own, we will fail. This new type of production is only possible due to the ongoing digitalization of the economy, and the growing power of computers that allow us to create complex mathematical models. This is the strength of Skoltech, where a brilliant team of mathematicians has assembled under the leadership of President Kuleshov,” he said.

Some of the objects already printed in Skoltech's new Additive Manufacturing Lab. Photo: Sk.ru.

Akhatov said that university labs are crucial to make additive manufacturing technology more suitable for the industry.  

“I think there is a lack of basic research today; researchers in this field often just do simple engineering. Our goal is to explore the possibilities of these technologies in a comprehensive way, to understand the right application of these technologies, and the right regimes and methodologies of using them,” he said. 

The experts gathered at the lab’s opening agreed that the main difficulty in creating a lab like this one is not in acquiring rare, cutting-edge technologies, but rather in finding researchers who are skilled in using them.

The lab boasts a globally unrivalled collection of 3D printers using metal, ceramic and polymers. Photo: Sk.ru.

“It can be easy to underestimate the importance of the people working in a lab, and focus instead on the equipment,” said Florian Mauerer, a senior vice president and head of additive manufacturing at Oerlikon.

“But talking to the people in the AM Lab, it was clear that this is a very strong group. They were very knowledgeable and also very passionate. In my opinion, that’s more important than just having great machines,” he said.

Akhatov said that the greatest challenge he faced in creating the lab was finding qualified people to work for him, noting that undergraduate- and graduate-level additive manufacturing programmes around the world are in their infancy.

Toward that end, in Akhatov’s view, it will be his team’s responsibility to pass the torch to the next generation of experts in the field.

“Our students will know all of these advanced manufacturing technologies after they graduate. It is they who will go on to change the world – not us; our time is gone. We have to convey our knowledge to this young generation of people so that they will shape the future of this field,” he said.