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UT Austin is home to some of the brightest minds in all of engineering. One such mind is that of Joseph J. Beaman, Sc.D., a professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Beaman has devoted his life to the study of additive manufacturing, culminating in the creation of a revolutionary form of 3D printing. As a mentor, he’s a source of inspiration and a wealth of knowledge for mechanical engineering students hoping to become innovators and leaders in their own right. We’re here to acknowledge the career and contributions of this incredible mechanical engineer. 

Joining the Cockrell School of Engineering

Beaman graduated with his Doctor of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979. That same year, he joined UT Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, where he specialized in manufacturing and control. Specifically, his interests lay in the study of solid freeform fabrication — a term he coined in 1987.

Solid freeform fabrication is the creation of three-dimensional objects from a computer-aided design (CAD) without specific tooling or human intervention. 3D printing is widely accessible today, but in the 1980s, manufacturing parts from a single machine was unheard of. Prototyping required the use of every machine on a factory floor, with each performing a different task. Beaman nonetheless saw the untapped potential of solid freeform fabrication, becoming the first academic researcher in the field.

Co-Inventing Selective Laser Sintering

As Beaman tells it, selective laser sintering (SLS) was born in the mid-1980s when then-graduate-student Carl Deckard approached him with a problem: How do you make a prototype without it taking six months? Deckard proposed fusing polymer powder using a directed energy beam, such as a laser, to build a part layer by layer. This conversation would set off a chain of events leading to the 1986 invention of SLS: one of the earliest forms of 3D printing.

SLS machines use a laser to trace cross-sections of a 3D design on powder, creating parts by fusing layers of material. What’s unique about this technology is that parts are supported by a bed of powder and nothing else, allowing for complex geometries beyond what other forms of 3D printing can produce. “We knew early on that if we could do it, it would essentially change the way people did manufacturing,” said Beaman.

How to Acquire a Laser in One Easy Step

Beaman had to get a little, shall we say, creative when pitching the idea of SLS. “I wrote a proposal that we were going to cut sheet metal with a laser, which we never did,” he admitted, “but I had to have that laser … ” In his defense, no one would’ve believed that a laser can form a three-dimensional object from powder.

The first part produced by SLS — a misshapen black cube — looks more like something found among the ashes of a housefire than a product of cutting-edge technology. Not that this discouraged Beaman and company.  “I always tell my students engineering is really easy, because every problem we solve isn’t that difficult,” he said. “The problem is you have to solve so many, and they all have to work.” With the assistance of another student, Paul Forderhase, Beaman and Deckard developed a second-generation SLS machine. Nicknamed Bambi, this machine featured a roller for even powder distribution and prevented product curling by preheating the printing chamber. These innovative solutions allowed for more complex designs, laying the foundation for the revolutionary technology we have today

Pushing the Boundaries of 3D Printing

Beaman’s career since the invention of SLS has been nothing short of astounding. He and Deckard founded Nova Automation in the late 1980s, becoming the first faculty member and student, respectively, to own a business created at UT Austin. Following a leave of absence to lead Advanced Development at the company, Beaman returned to UT Austin, where he pushes the boundaries of 3D printing technology to this day.

Beaman is credited with well over 100 publications on topics ranging from rapid manufacturing to powder material principles. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and a member of their Dynamic Systems and Control Division. His accolades include:

  • The National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award, 1984.
  • The Academy of Distinguished Alumni’s Distinguished Mechanical Engineer Award, 2011.
  • The Office of Technology Commercialization’s Inventor of the Year Award, 2015.

SLS is revolutionary technology poised to gain widespread adoption. However, Beaman’s greatest contribution to the field of engineering may be his work as an educator. He is one of many expert faculty members in the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering who’ve dedicated their lives to training the next generation of engineers.

Study Mechanical Engineering at UT Austin

Beaman was right when he said engineering is all about problem-solving. Many of the greatest inventions of our time began as seemingly insurmountable obstacles until an engineer decided there must be a better way. No matter the engineering problem, there’s always a solution; engineers only need the skills, knowledge and experience to find it.

UT Austin offers two 100% online programs for professionals interested in becoming engineering leaders and innovators:

Interested in following in the footsteps of Beaman? Our programs contain rigorous, industry-relevant course content that will empower you to take your engineering skills and career to the next level. Apply now to one of our 100% online mechanical engineering programs and learn to solve any engineering problem thrown at you.


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