The Colorado Cleantech Industries Association (CCIA) and partners are aiming to give additive manufacturing a boost with the newly minted Advanced Materials and Additive Manufacturing Infrastructure Development and Education (AMIDE) Alliance. The goal: to close a gap in the supply chain by supporting the development of sustainable thermoplastics — plastics that soften when heated — for additive manufacturing.

An Advanced Industries Accelerator grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) funded AMIDE’s launch in 2018, with industry partners providing a two-to-one match to the $500,000 grant from OEDIT. Founding partners include Colorado State University, Colorado School of Mines, CCIA, Vartega and several private sector companies in Colorado.

The Alliance is building Centers for Innovation at Vartega, Colorado School of Mines and Colorado State University. All three are housing equipment funded by state grants to AMIDE: at Vartega, the largest thermoplastic compounding extrusion line in Colorado; a Hewlett-Packard Jet Fusion 3D printer at Mines; and a dual-arm robot from Wolf Robotics at a fiber-placement lab at CSU. Initially, students will use the equipment in the classroom, but the long-term goal involves companies partnering with the universities on R&D. Over time, AMIDE intends to foster domestic supply chains of existing materials and prove out new ones, while teaching the skill sets necessary for the industry to advance to the next level.

Jennifer Ramsey joined AMIDE to manage the project in early 2019. She says her initial efforts are centered on spurring collaboration between diverse stakeholders. “No single entity can move the needle in thermoplastics materials innovation,” she says. “It needs partnerships. It needs people bringing new materials to the table, partners to test materials and buy-in from industry.

There’s a big sustainability play at the heart of the initiative, as existing plastics often create waste streams that flow directly into the landfill. Thermoplastics can be recycled, unlike thermosets, but there’s a logistical hurdle: a truly sustainable market needs suppliers of recyclable plastics as well as end users who want the finished product.

Ramsey calls AMIDE “the brainchild” of Vartega CEO Andrew Maxey, who co-founded the Golden-based company in 2014 to develop technology that recycles carbon fiber and could potentially be used to bolster thermoplastics in additive manufacturing.

But there’s a hitch. “There’s this gap in the supply chain for advanced materials in additive manufacturing,” says Maxey. “There’s some fundamental development that has to happen. That’s what we’re doing with AMIDE.”

He highlights a project at Vartega to develop colorless carbon fiber that’s funded by an SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation. It would break new ground by allowing additive manufacturers to print parts with strength of carbon fiber, but without the traditionally requisite black hue. With project partners like Mines and multinational chemical supplier Arkema, it’s exactly the kind of collaborative project that AMIDE will support.

The supply chain isn’t the only element of additive manufacturing with missing links. “Workforce needs are changing and gaps are emerging,” says Ramsey. “Additive manufacturing allows us to make new things in new ways, across all industries, and we need people with the right skills to work in those jobs.” The hope is to develop a formal internship program at AMIDE member companies.

With about 20 machines making end-use parts for manufacturers in numerous industries, The 3D Printing Store in Centennial is one such company. “I always tell people the three most important words to my business are materials, materials, materials,” says The 3D Printing Store co-founder Debra Wilcox. AMIDE offers a perfect vehicle for innovation in materials for additive manufacturing, she adds. “We haven’t scratched the surface yet.”

Target areas include recycled materials and bioplastics, as well as compounded materials incorporating plastic and materials like carbon fiber, glass beads, or ceramics. Customer requests make The 3D Printing Store an apt partner for AMIDE.

Such partnerships will provide an industry conduit for AMIDE. “Our plan is to be reaching out to other companies that have needs,” says Ramsey, who says she often hears from manufacturers, “We’d like to work with new materials, but we have nowhere to prove it out.”

At Mines, AMIDE will work in concert with the Alliance for the Development Processing Technologies (ADAPT). Craig Brice, who teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level classes in additive manufacturing, says the HP Jet Fusion printer funded by AMIDE will be used as a tool for both education and research.

“Making the material is just the first step,” he explains. “You have to do an extraordinary amount of testing. We have to understand how the [additive manufacturing] process affects the properties.”

Mines has the perfect resource to support testing, Brice adds. “This is a key area where we can contribute. We not only have the equipment, we have the expertise and the analytical techniques.”

AMIDE’s long-term vision also involves industry seminars, hack-a-thons and other events with the goal of fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation between companies involved in additive manufacturing.

The nascent organization is now in the process of cementing partnerships with a variety of industry players. “For folks who want to participate because they have materials or applications, reach out,” says Maxey.