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June 9, 2017

Sangkee Min aims to transcend design constraints in manufacturing

Written By: Pat DeFlorin


Due to manufacturing constraints, the designs of many consumer products from computers to watches to automobiles haven’t changed much over the years.

Sangkee Min wants to alter that, and a Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award will support him in that endeavor.

Min, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison after working in industry, where he learned firsthand that there is room for improvement.

Currently, the manufacturing industry uses a design-for-manufacturing paradigm. The idea of design for manufacturing is to train designers to think like manufacturers: to teach them about manufacturing capabilities and constraints with the goal of decreasing the number of iterations between design and manufacturing, thus improving efficiency.

While design for manufacturing is speedy and efficient, it is also limiting. Creating a design that adheres to existing manufacturing constraints stifles innovation. There is a reason why the newest version of the iPhone looks very similar to previous versions. “It’s not just maintaining brand identities; in a lot of cases it’s because of manufacturing constraints,” says Min.

The Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award supports Min in his quest to transcend these constraints. The award provides Min with $15,000 over three years to help him further pioneer a new paradigm that allows designers to dream up breakthrough designs that have been previously brushed away as unrealistic.

This new paradigm, which Min calls manufacturing for design (MFD), empowers industry and academia to design products with any materials, features and specifications they can imagine to create truly innovative products.

One tool that enables manufacturing for design is ultra-precision machining, which allows Min and others to machine emerging, difficult-to-cut materials such as sapphire, zirconia and graphene with staggering precision.

Min uses a 3D nanoscale milling machine called the ROBONANO α-0iB in his Manufacturing and Innovation Network Laboratory. The machine is made by the Japanese robotics manufacture FANUC and is the only machine of its kind in the United States. In the coming year, Min also will acquire a new milling machine from FANUC that is capable of accurately machining down to the Angstrom level; it will be the only machine that precise in the world.

Min has already implemented manufacturing for design in a variety of applications. For example, he collaborated with the National Center for Electron Microscopy to revolutionize electron microscopy. The image quality of an electron microscope is limited by the architecture of the cone-shaped pedestal that a sample is placed on—the sharper the shape of the pedestal, the better the image. Due to previous manufacturing constraints, the sample pedestals needed to be straight-sided, but Min used ultra-precision machining to sharpen the pedestal’s peak. This change allowed researchers to improve image resolution by two orders of magnitude.

Min has also worked with a smartphone manufacturer to create devices with new materials, with a watch company to create watches with custom bevels that reflect a hologram when you tilt them in the light, and with a toy company to create pieces made from a digestible plastic that is less hazardous than other plastics. In the past, these ideas would have been dismissed.

Despite the promise of manufacturing for design, the manufacturing industry tends to be change-averse. “When I was in industry, I was always thinking ‘what if,’” says Min. “And my bosses would say, ‘Sangkee, no.’”

Now, Min hopes manufacturing for design will allow manufacturing leaders to embrace the ‘what ifs’ of forward-thinking employees and say yes to innovative ideas that push the limits of design.

What if designers could choose new materials for vehicle pistons, computer chips or semiconductors?

“The possibilities are endless,” says Min.