Breaking Down Walls: Doctoral Candidate Working at Frontier of Cybersecurity and 3D Printing

Fei Chen Places Third in Highly Competitive Falling Walls Lab Pitch Event

Fei Chen holding a 3D printed item next to Professor Gupta

Doctoral candidate Fei Chen and her adviser, professor Nikhil Gupta.

Fei Chen is no stranger to breaking down walls. Since she joined associate professor Nikhil Gupta’s Composite Materials and Mechanics Laboratory (CMML) four years ago as a research student, the NYU Tandon doctoral candidate has been developing pioneering research into 3D printing and cybersecurity. In 2019, Chen will be the first female Ph.D. student to graduate from CMML and as Gupta’s advisee.

While both are incredible feats, the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student sees these simply as challenges she’s ready to take on. A rigorous researcher, Chen works alongside Gupta to answer some of the biggest security concerns about 3D printing — a field in which many have not yet endeavored.

3D printing is popping up in a variety of sectors, Chen explains, noting that many “companies are using 3D printers to make very high-value parts.” Biomedical manufacturers can now easily print materials for their life-saving devices. Aircraft and aerospace designs can seamlessly move from computer to product in a matter of minutes. Even military research labs are implementing 3D-printed parts.

Despite its far-reaching potential, 3D printing is still a relatively new type of technology and currently faces the growing threat of stolen intellectual property (IP) and counterfeiting. Just as anyone’s computers, servers, or hardware are at risk for hacking, so too are 3D printers, companies, and their designs.

In response to these threats, Gupta and Chen published their groundbreaking research in 2017 in Materials and Design. In it, they detail how intentionally embedded hidden flaws they placed in computer aided design (CAD) files can disappear when printed under specific parameters. If anyone else besides the IP owner and trusted partners attempted to print with these files, they’d end up with defective parts.

Just this past August 2018, Gupta and Chen’s research team became the first to transform flat QR (Quick Response) codes into hidden 3D features within 3D-printed parts. Using a unique method that “explodes” a QR code in a CAD file, false QR tags thwart potential thieves.

“What you see in a file is not necessarily what you produce with a 3D printer when you use our design-security feature. You are the IP owner, and you will be the only one that can produce your high-quality part with these features that we’ve created. When anyone else tries to produce this part, they would print something that is defective and poor quality,” Chen says.

She presented her research at the Falling Walls Lab contest on September 13, 2018, placing third in the highly competitive international pitch event that was held at the Leslie eLab. Participants had only three minutes to showcase their research and business ventures to a jury. (The event was co-sponsored by the German Center for Research and Innovation New York and NYU Tandon.)

Out of the many applications submitted from all over the U.S., Chen was one of nine entrepreneurs selected to present, and the only student from NYU. Students and professors from universities like Virginia Tech, MIT, Harvard, and Columbia competed, but Chen soared to the top. “It was a very diverse selection of participants, working in distinct areas, including sociology, artificial intelligence, engineering designs, and biomedical applications,” she shares.

Describing to the audience the prototypes she, Gupta, and their research team created, Chen highlighted the common thread amongst all industries currently using, or thinking of using 3D printing: protecting their IP.

“In her pitch, Fei tried to strike a similar chord with everyone in the audience, rather than speaking to one specific application,” Gupta explains. “Our societies, economies, and people’s lives will be impacted by these threats of counterfeiting and intellectual property, but her findings present greater possibilities for doctors, engineers, and anybody using 3D printing.”

From Curious Student to Pioneering Researcher

Born in Baise, China, Chen spent most of her childhood in Dongguan before coming to Tandon in 2012. Earning her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from both Beijing Jiaotong University and Tandon (when both universities had a dual-degree program), Chen quickly fell in love with the school and decided to pursue her doctoral degree here in 2015.

Gupta challenged Chen to explore the little-researched world of 3D printing and cybersecurity when she joined his lab. “Even though people have been developing new techniques and materials, the security concerns hadn’t been addressed in much research literature yet,” Chen says.                           

A world-renowned researcher, entrepreneur, and leading expert in additive manufacturing and composite materials, Gupta is an incredibly supportive mentor and adviser to Chen, and adamant that she is the brains behind their studies’ innovative methods. “It’s important to understand that while I’m probably the public face of this research, all the work and a lot of the ideas now originate from Fei,” Gupta explains. “Originally we started this research before Fei joined. We wanted to create this field where people were finding solutions to cybersecurity concerns in 3D printing field. When she came on board, she contributed tremendously.”

Gupta emphasizes that Chen manages the entire project, balancing multiple components and communicating with collaborators, including NYU Abu Dhabi researchers, computer scientists, and the U.S. Army Research Lab. While it may be exciting to be published in respected journals, Gupta and Chen both agree that their work is more about the process.

“In my experience, it’s rare that you test something and it works immediately. It always takes so much time, and many trials and little steps,” Chen says. “I don’t think that there’s any problem to that, though. It’s a good way to create new knowledge and inventions.”

She shares this advice to the high school students she mentors in the Applied Research Innovations in Science and Engineering (ARISE) — the K-12 STEM program she has been part of for three years. “I tell them on their first day to not worry about things you might see as failures, or if something’s not working out, but to enjoy the process and ask as many questions as they want,” Chen emphasizes. “This is the same for me, you cannot just feel frustrated when this one thing doesn’t work. Professor Gupta tells me this all the time: if this isn’t working, there may be another way to make it work.”

Now, as Chen prepares for her job search ahead of graduation, she’s determined to continue working with 3D printing and cybersecurity, and her own mentor sees unlimited possibilities for her. “Her research can branch out to other manufacturing methods, or it can be more focused on cybersecurity methods like encryption tools,” Gupta encourages. “We don’t know where this will end up, but she has a lot of unique ideas that she can test in her future research.”

On Friday, October 12, 2018, Chen will speak at the “Additive Manufacturing: State of the Art and Trends” workshop organized for American Society for Mechanical Engineers. The lecture also features Rakesh Kumar Behera and will be moderated by Nikhil Gupta.