With 3D printing being used just about everywhere these days, have you ever wondered, How safe and reliable would a 3D-printed part be if used in a critical application, like an aircraft or biomedical implant?

That is the question that motivated Assistant Professor Ashley Spear to begin pursuing research into the potential causes of failure of additively manufactured (AM) metal parts. Spear recently received a National Science Foundation Career Award, which will provide the support she needs to better understand the sources of failure in AM metal parts in hopes that the findings could help in predicting failure and, better yet, avoid it altogether.

“There are so many choices one has to make in order to create an additively manufactured part, and recognizing how each of these choices influences the final quality and performance of a part is a pretty daunting task,” says Spear. To try and understand how AM-build parameters ultimately influence variability and performance among parts, Spear will employ sophisticated materials characterization tools along with computational modeling to recreate and visualize the failure process in three dimensions, starting at microscopic length scales.

“We are looking for inherent imperfections within the AM parts and trying to comprehend how these imperfections interact and potentially contribute to the formation and growth of cracks in the material,” says Spear—cracks that could ultimately lead to failure. Once her team has a better understanding of how the AM defects can lead to failure, they will continue to develop models and tools that will help to design higher-quality and higher-performance parts that can be used safely and reliably in the structures around us.

The NSF Career Award is for $500,000, and Spear says the research is already underway in her lab. This is Spear’s second early-career award. In 2015, she received the Young Investigator Award from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. She joined the faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah in 2014 after completing her graduate studies at Cornell University. To learn more about Spear and her research group, visit the website for her lab, the Multiscale Mechanics & Materials Laboratory.