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McCormick Researchers to Share in $7 Million Advanced Manufacturing Grant

Jian Cao, Kornel Ehmann to work with Ford, Boeing, others on energy-efficient manufacturing

The McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University will share a three-year, $7 million U.S. Department of Energy grant with Ford, Boeing, M.I.T., and Penn State University to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes.

Jian Cao

With the funding, the researchers will scale up an innovative, highly flexible, dieless forming method for rapid production of sheet metal components. The dieless method uses two simultaneously operating, computer-controlled genetic tools to create 3D shapes in sheet metal.

When fully developed, the technology would reduce material scrap and energy consumption by an estimated 70 percent through the elimination of geometric-specific tooling. Production costs would be reduced by 90 percent, and a typical lead-time from design to product would be reduced from 8 to 25 weeks to less than one week.

“Current manufacturing processes for airplane and automobile sheet metal parts are extremely energy intensive and require dies that often weigh more than a ton and cost more than $1 million each,” said Jian Cao, professor of mechanical engineering and of civil and environmental engineering, associate vice president for research at Northwestern, and McCormick’s lead investigator on the award. “Manufacturing those dies, maintaining, and disposing of them leads to unnecessary work and waste.” 

Kornel EhmannWith a $2 million budget allocated to the Northwestern team, the McCormick researchers will build upon an existing dieless forming system developed in Cao’s research group, advance its accuracy and creating a new machine architecture. Kornel Ehmann, professor of mechanical engineering, is also an investigator on the grant.  

Ford is the lead agency on the grant, which is part of $23.5 million in funding announced last month by the Department of Energy. Five innovative manufacturing projects were funded as part of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, President Barack Obama’s effort "to guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America.” 

The projects are expected to improve energy productivity, reduce pollution, and boost product output, while creating jobs and helping American companies expand export opportunities globally.