Two UW student teams are finalists in national inventors competition

Two University of Wisconsin-Madison teams are among only seven undergraduate finalists for the 2014 National Collegiate Inventors Competition, which honors the latest in student creativity and innovation.

Taylor Fahey (computer engineering/computer science), Charles Haider (chemical engineering) and Cedric Kovacs-Johnson (chemical engineering) are recognized for Spectrom, an on-demand, full-color 3-D printing technology. Their advisor for the project is Tim Osswald, the Kuo K. and Cindy F. Wang professor of mechanical engineering.

Eric Ronning (mechanical engineering, Morgridge Institute for Research) will be representing his invention, the Remex Static Mixer, alongside Will Doniger (material science and engineering) and Brian Pekron (nuclear engineering) who’ve helped the idea become a reality. A breakthrough redesign of current static mixing technology, the Remex offers both increased efficiency, as well as gentle flow mixing. The project advisor is Thomas “Rock” Mackie, director of medical engineering at the Morgridge Institute for Research and most recent recipient of the William D. Coolidge Award in Medical Physics.

Winners will be announced at the Nov. 17 competition, held annually at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. Competitors get the opportunity to network with some of the nation’s foremost innovators, while competing for more than $100,000 in cash prizes and representing their school among the country’s most inventive universities.

Spectrom: Dynamic color adds novelty, functionality to 3D printed products

Spectrom is a 3-D printer attachment that dyes clear plastic on demand in a precise, continuous process. The device allows for variable color 3-D printing within a single project, a previously unmet need.

“3-D printing is pretty much a monochromatic industry right now, so you can only print in one color at a time,” says Haider. “What people have done are workaround solutions that don’t solve the true problem at hand.”

These other solutions mostly involve adding more extruder nozzles and more pre-dyed spools of plastic to the printers. But having four nozzles and four spools of colored plastic still only gives users four colors at a time. Spectrom’s technology uses only one extruder nozzle, and it greatly expands the color possibilities while taking advantage of the current 3-D printer architecture.

“We now know the core technology to color is there. That works,” says Kovacs-Johnson. “We’d like to show that color is not just a feature—it enables you to do so much more. Our next steps are about determining what people actually want to make in color, and how we provide the tools for them to use our tool.”

Simplifying the process of 3-D modeling is crucial to enabling average consumers to create their own products, Haider says. But sometimes the greater need is helping audiences who wouldn’t typically use 3-D printers realize possibilities the technology can bring.

A chance conversation with an avid fisherman turned into a project to 3-D-print fishing lures. Transitional color and patterns play a part in whether the fish will bite or not, and needs change depending on weather, location and fishing conditions.

“That whole fishing lure project wouldn’t even be possible if you didn’t have color,” says Kovacs-Johnson. “The guy we made the fishing lures for, he would have never thought to use a 3-D printer. Now he sees a use for it, and the color adds whatever he needs.”

Spectrom is a beneficiary of UW-Madison’s new Discovery to Product (D2P) program that helps projects at the pre-commercialization stage reach marketability. The group has already won several campus and statewide competitions, but the Collegiate Inventors Competition would be the first national accolade.

“This is personally such an honor,” says Haider. ““When we first competed, I got the entrepreneurial bug. To succeed, you have to believe in your ideas and know you can do it as a team.”

“For me the competition is a test of our novelty because it is the USPTO,” says Kovacs-Johnson. “I’ve been told this invention has a true mix of technical novelty and immediate commercial potential. I’d like to see if it’s worthy of being recognized on a national level.”

Remex Static Mixer: Innovative design may have biological applications

The Remex Static Mixer introduces a new geometry to the standard static mixer design.

A typical static mixer allows for fluids to mix as they move through a cylindrical tube or pipe. A series of baffles, or twisting components, are housed in the cylinder. The baffles themselves are non-moving, but the structure blends the liquids as they flow through the tube.

Ronning likens current market options to countertop blenders.

“Blenders are great for whipping up strawberry shakes; however, you can expect you’ll destroy all of your fruit in the process,” Ronning says. “Taking this analogy to the case of bioreactor applications, current static mixers are too violent when mixing delicate fluids. Currently, many industries are stunted by their mixing processes.”

Early tests have shown the Remex Static Mixer to require less pressure, almost doubling efficiencies over the current champion on the market. These results are indicative of a design that is also less turbulent and more delicate in mixing.

“It means you can do things you couldn’t otherwise do,” Ronning says. “The hope is that this design can mix reactants that would otherwise be too fragile, like recombinant protein therapies where live cells are mixed together.”

The Remex project was founded on theories about both efficient mixing and the reduction of shear stress for gentler mixing. Determining an optimized shape mathematically was the first step; physically modeling it was another hurdle, says Rock Mackie, the advisor on the project.

“It was pointed out that this mathematical shape was theoretically the best and impossible to make,” Mackie says. “But, in fact, you can make it—with 3-D printers. The most serendipitous innovations come when you’re colliding together two things; in this case, it was a knowledge of both the theory and the practical details to implement it.”

This fall will be the second time Ronning attends the National Collegiate Inventors Competition finals, though this time it will be as part of a team. Ronning earned second place in 2012 for ReHand, a project that 3-D prints personalized hand prosthetics for amputees.

“It’s a blast to meet other students who are very passionate about their ideas,” Ronning says.

The judges include influential inventors and industry leaders whose insights can prove valuable to the student finalists, while the competition itself gives projects recognition on a national scale.

“This competition catapults your idea into a path of success and opportunity that’s unparalleled to anything you can imagine,” Ronning says.