News from Michigan State University

Shanelle Foster Using Inspiration from Spiders to Improve 3D Printing

Shanelle Foster is using inspiration from spiders to improve 3D printing.

Headshot of Shanelle Foster, she has short dark hair and is wearing a black blazer with a blue under shirt.

“If we adopt the design diversity of spiders, I think we can … stretch conventional manufacturing.” – Shanelle Foster

A researcher at Michigan State University will use a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to improve the design of electric motors and generators using 3D printing technologies – and a little inspiration from spiders.

“Inclusion of intricate design features that improve electric motors can be a nightmare when conventional manufacturing techniques are used,” Foster said, “so I have been applying 3D printing technologies to better their performance. The technologies offer unique options in size, shape and diversity of materials.”

MSU Foundation Professor John Papapolymerou, who is chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said NSF CAREER Awards are among the most competitive and prestigious faculty awards nationwide.

“They bestow high recognition to junior faculty members with a promise of becoming future academic leaders in their research area and in higher education in general,” he explained. “This CAREER Award for Dr. Foster will advance the state-of-the art in electric motor design and development – a field of utmost importance with the imminent growth of electric vehicles and platforms.

“It will also train and mentor the next generation of electrical engineers with a particular emphasis on underrepresented minorities and women,” he added.

Foster said one of her goals is to strategically deposit material during motor manufacturing the same way that spiders can optimize web design by depositing silk.

“Spiders use diversity in web silks to build a more structurally sound web. The variability of the silk properties is the strength of the web,” she explained. “It performs its intended task more efficiently.”

Graphic with different colored animals and shapes.

Spiders and 3D printing are inspiring Shanelle Foster’s design improvements for electric motors.

Likewise, she continued, 3D printing allows motor designers to manufacture lightweight and robust motors – reducing greenhouse gases, which is key to preserving the environment.

“If we adopt the design diversity of spiders, I think we can provide new design rules and materials to stretch beyond the limitations of conventional manufacturing.”

She also noted that an integral part of the project includes faculty-mentored undergraduate research experiences for underrepresented minorities and women, as well as, development of inexpensive, project-based, pre-college basic physics courses for both in-person and virtual delivery. Virtual delivery will facilitate participation of students from underserved domestic communities and those on other continents, she added.

Foster joined MSU January 2014. She is one of four faculty in MSU’s Electrical Machines and Power Electronics Research (EMPowER) Laboratory. Her research interests include analysis, control, reliability and manufacturability of rotating and linear electrical machines and drives.

Among her accomplishments, her 3D printing innovations were recognized in the U.S. Naval Research Concept Challenge to assist the Navy in eliminating logistical difficulties while at sea. And she has been featured as a STEM advocate on the PBS show Curious Crew.

She has three electrical engineering degrees from MSU – a bachelor’s (1996), master’s (1998) and Ph.D. (2013.)

Foster is the 15th faculty member in the College of Engineering to receive an NSF CAREER Award in the past three years. NSF CAREER Awards support junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research and education. It is among NSF’s most prestigious honors.

Read more on her NSF research here.

Patricia Mroczek via College of Engineering