Modern society needs innovative manufacturing tech, says Trinity engineer

For Trinity engineer Dr Rocco Lupoi, additive manufacturing is about developing sustainable and efficient processes to meet the demands of modern society.

For Dr Rocco Lupoi, only time will tell if the increased public awareness of scientific research due to the Covid-19 pandemic will result in more recognition and funding for this “essential activity”.

Reading an article about the development of Covid-19 vaccines, Lupoi was struck by this sentence which he says is a “summary of my job”:

“It was the culmination of decades of fundamental discoveries that had once been shrugged off as uninteresting. To get here, hundreds of researchers had tried, failed, reversed course and made incremental progress in different fields, never knowing for sure that any of their efforts would ever pay off.”

Lupoi is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Manufacturing and Biomedical Engineering, at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). He also works at the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Amber Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research and the I-Form Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

Just last month, Lupoi and an international research team were awarded European Innovation Council funding under the Pathfinder scheme for their MadeCold project, which will investigate new technologies for additive manufacturing (AM) to benefit the aerospace, energy and hybrid-manufacturing sectors.

Tell us about your current research.

I started in TCD with the intention to explore a very new metallic coating process, now known as ‘cold spray’. In this process very small particles (less than 60 microns in size) are accelerated at speeds faster than the speed of sound and are made to deposit over a substrate material to form a coating. This process does not use fusion heat; it therefore carries a number of important advantages.

It was difficult to establish a laboratory facility in the first place, as I had to secure right from the start my own funding and space. I recall looking at some of my new colleagues with a little bit of envy, as they were in the position to join established set-ups and write publications within a short time frame. My topic was too new and not seen in Ireland before. I worked really hard to get myself off the ground. Eventually I did, so the journey started!

10 years on and cold spray is still a topic of great interest, but I have moved on to explore other areas such as laser printing by laser ablation, laser powder bed fusion, and the development of totally new technologies that only exist in my lab (for the moment).

One example is Metal Additive Manufacturing using Powder Sheets (MAPS), which I believe to hold some promise for radical changes in the future of how we print using metallic materials. My core research team is composed of PhD candidates, master’s students and research assistants and fellows, and averages 13 individuals throughout an academic year.

Perhaps, if I think how my research has evolved during the years, one common factor is the usage of ‘metal powder’ as I do not seem to have ever left it!

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Manufacturing techniques have existed since the birth of humankind; they affect everything that we see around us.

Currently, the final price of goods and the total environmental impact are by and large dictated by the manufacturing processes used. It is therefore critical to develop more efficient technologies that are able to respond and adapt to the rapidly growing demand but without adding strain to the environment.

Goods we will use in the future will be highly technological but will be enabled by equally sophisticated manufacturing techniques.

What inspired you to become a researcher? Do you have any specific memories that set off a spark?

Yes, I do! It was the time when I started my master’s project. I wrote down a couple of equations to calculate the stress acting over the die surface of a forging process. I was going to use these equations, in combination with some experimental data. These were simple equations, but I did not find them in any book! The realisation of that made me conclude to have found what I wanted to do, again and again, in the future. Do things not in any book!

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Over the years, I have struggled to receive recognition for my profession and the importance of the research element of my work.

The title of professor is usually interpreted to be related to a teaching figure only in the minds of many in the general public. Teaching is very important, and I do feel passionate about it, but it is only a part of the job.

If I tell my new neighbour that I will be very busy at work over the summer, the answer is not likely to be, ‘you must have some exciting research going on in your lab’. Instead, it will be ‘why? There is no teaching to be done over the summer’.

However, the situation is becoming better due to the numerous research outreach events organised during the year by national research bodies.

How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

I am, in all fairness, somewhat selective about public engagement. You have to be, I think – there is simply not enough time for a wider approach. However, for a number of years I have helped in the organisation of open days and delivered seminars to second-level students and parents about engineering and research in engineering.

In terms of academic engagement, what I have found very impactful is attendance at scientific events only ‘vaguely’ related to my core research expertise. This approach really boosts the generation of innovative ideas and an interdisciplinary approach to research.

I recall attending an event in France several years back, when I met a professor from Imperial College London who was working on some strange materials known as high-entropy alloys. That connection led to the very first journal publication exploring cold spray applied to high-entropy alloys and a best journal paper award, and two collaborative PhD programmes.

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