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Hantang Qin
September 8, 2022

Focus on new faculty: Hantang Qin taking 3D printing to new heights

Written By: Tom Ziemer

To test the 3D printing technology he hopes will one day reach the International Space Station or even Mars, Hantang Qin loads his novel equipment onto an airplane for a parabolic flight that simulates a zero-gravity environment.

Beyond the enormous technological challenges in perfecting such machinery to work in space, Qin must contend with one fundamental inconvenience: He can’t actually observe its in-flight performance firsthand, because he has motion sickness.

But that minor hindrance isn’t deterring Qin’s ascent toward his goal of seeing his technology travel to—and successfully operate in—space. That’s just one of the practical results Qin hopes to deliver through his research, which spans 3D printing techniques, rapid prototyping methods and tools, autonomous robots, and quality assurance in emerging micro- and nanoscale manufacturing systems.

Qin has brought his work to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, after five years on the faculty of Iowa State University.

He says he didn’t initially set out to develop technology for in-space manufacturing while earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Zhejiang University in his native China, or later, while pursuing his PhD in industrial engineering at North Carolina State University. But he saw a natural fit between his work and NASA’s desire for a system that could autonomously print new electronic components for the array of sensors on spacecraft.

“Those sensors, they are consumables, so sometimes they don’t function after being used for a while,” he says. “So making new sensors would be essential for deep-space efforts. However, for NASA, they don’t want to bring backup sensors for each and every type. Instead, they want to have a manufacturing technology that can make each type of sensor.”

As part of his collaboration with NASA and industry partners, Qin, colleagues from Iowa State and a team of students have twice traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for parabolic test flights over three largely sleepless days. These roller-coaster-like maneuvers yield a series of 20- to 30-second windows that mimic a zero-gravity environment, allowing Qin’s team to test and refine its tools for printing conductive inks, including silver and barium titanate, onto glass. Qin is currently planning a third test run for late 2023 or early 2024.

“In the lab, everything is stable. Every environment is controlled. Well, over there, nothing is as expected,” he says. “That’s why, even for industrial and systems engineering, experiments are important, because we will never learn everything without doing the experiments ourselves.”

Qin is also using a grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build an autonomous robot capable of scanning damaged concrete surfaces and then printing materials to make repairs. He envisions departments of transportation deploying the robots to fix surface damage to roads and the U.S. Army using them to safely repair buildings and bridges in areas of conflict.

And through a U.S. Army Research Laboratory grant, he’s developing a new inline monitoring system for manufacturing at the micro and nanoscales, where optical methods reach limitations. Qin’s method employs laser diffraction to gather data used to monitor quality.

He’s bringing his 3D printing and prototyping expertise into the classroom in fall 2022 through a new course in biomedical design and manufacturing (initially offered as a special topics course, ISyE 604). In it, students create computer-aided design models of human bones, 3D print them, and work with medical data. Qin plans to also bring in guest speakers from biomedical manufacturing companies to expose students to industry insights.

Qin also began using virtual reality modules to allow students to interact with manufacturing tools when labs were closed early in the COVID-19 pandemic. He sees the technology as a potential avenue to remotely connect students from technical colleges to world-class facilities.

As the son of two high school teachers, inspiring the next generation of engineers is part of what drew him to academia in the first place.

“Making an impact, educating people, putting them onto a successful career path is something that satisfies me,” he says.