WPI Journal  
Volume CI, No. 4 - Spring 2000
An Award-winning Washout

By Arlie Corday

A new polymer blend developed by John Lombardi '90 is transforming the field of rapid prototyping. The invention recently won him one of the top prizes in applied research.

Lombardi, left, and Gregory Artz with a prototype made using Aqua-Port.

Most inventors would be dejected if the product of their hard work and inspiration went down the drain. But John L. Lombardi '90 is all smiles. The new support material he invented, which washes away with warm tap water, not only revolutionized the field of rapid prototyping, but won the young chemist what's been called the "Nobel Prize of applied research."

Lombardi received an R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine in September 1999. each year the magazine gives the award for the top 100 new products. Previous winning technologies include the automated-teller machine, antilock brakes, the liquid crystal display, the fax machine, the touch-sensitive screen and the anticancer drug Taxol.

Lombardi won for the invention of Aqua-Port, a blend of polymers--a sort of organic alloy--that can do what no other rapid-prototyping support material can. Rapid prototyping is a method of translating computer-generated designs for new objects or parts directly into three-dimensional structures. Unlike conventional subtractive manufacturing processes (such as CNC milling), which cut parts from bulk feedstock, rapid-prototyping machines take the digital information and build up objects, layer by layer, from plastic, ceramics or wax. To prevent the layers from slumping, the growing parts generally are reinforced with a supporting material.

Until now, the supporting material often had to be carefully chipped away with dental picks or tweezers to reveal the prototype, a time-consuming process that also entailed the risk of damaging the finished piece or inadvertently removing fine details. But work by Lombardi, senior research scientist at Advanced Ceramics Research of Tucson, Ariz., and senior research technician Gregory Artz changed all that. Their discovery is a water-soluble support material.

"Instead of labor-intensive work, this new polymer blend can simply be washed from the part," Lombardi says. "All you need is a bucket of tap water, and 10 to 15 minutes later, you're done."

The process has a number of important advantages over previous rapid-prototyping technologies, he adds. For example, it can reproduce more complex geometries, generating parts that were previously impossible to prototype. The material can also support prototypes with internal cavities and tortuous channels, spaces from which it is virtually impossible to remove other support materials. The material is nontoxic and environmentally friendly, and it has high thermal stability, withstanding temperatures of over 550*F.

"It opens up a whole new way of manufacturing," Lombardi says. "Most water soluble polymers don't exhibit high thermal stability and cannot be used in most rapid-prototyping processes."

Lombardi, a Worcester native, received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from WPI. As a student, he was a summer research intern at Norton/TRW Ceramics Co. in Northboro, Mass. While there, he and research scientist William S. Coblenz '70 became good friends.

After graduation, Lombardi pursued a master's and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at the University of Arizona. While still a graduate student, he founded J.L. Lombardi & Associates, a materials processing consulting firm in Tucson. One of his three clients was Advanced Ceramics Research. Among a number of other projects completed for the firm over a six-year period, he was a principal participant in several research programs on polymer and ceramic free-forming funded through DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs. He is listed as co-inventor on several patent applications filed based on this work. He holds eight foreign and domestic patents, altogether.

After receiving his doctorate in 1996, Lombardi joined Advanced Ceramics Research as a full-time employee, where, among other assignments, he has been responsible for developing new ceramic processing technologies under contract from DARPA, a project that involved researchers at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities. He is also co-inventor of several commercial superfinishing products used in the planarization of semiconductors and computer hard disks. Overall, he has been responsible for products that account for $7 million in yearly sales for the company.

But the most commercially significant product he has developed is Aqua-Port. Funding for the invention came from DARPA, which is responsible for developing "the really high-end defense research technology that is critical to the future and defense of the United States," Lombardi notes. In an interesting twist, the person responsible for approving the funding for the research was William Coblenz, who'd left Norton by then to become a program monitor at DARPA.

Lombardi says his doctoral advisor at the University of Arizona, Paul Calvert, professor of materials science and engineering, provided assistance in the development of Aqua-Port. His collaboration with graduate students at the university, where Lombardi serves as an adjunct research professor, also played a role. He says his work with the students reminded him of the project work he did at WPI.

"WPI lets students see the broad spectrum of technology and its societal impact, and this invention follows that lead," he says. "With the help from our graduate students, I was reminded of the interdisciplinary aspect of a WPI education, which emphasizes how to define problems as well as how to be resourceful in their solution. That was an important part of what I learned at WPI.

"Now we've licensed this technology off to a major rapid-prototyping equipment manufacturer," he says. "These machines are used by all the major auto makers, for example, for the fabrication of design prototypes. This is really a good example of what applied research should be."

In addition to the R&D 100 Award, Lombardi garnered a 1996 Inventor Award from NASA Technology Briefs, a 1995 Graduate Student Research Award from the Materials Research Society, and research fellowships from NASA and Courtaulds plc.

Lombardi says Aqua-Port has a bright future. Apparently, the same could be said for Lombardi himself and Advanced Ceramics Research.

Corday is assistant director of media and community relations at WPI.

Last modified: Jun 13, 2000, 13:35 EDT
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