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Molinaroli College of Engineering and Computing

  • Wout De Backer and student

De Backer inspires innovation and passion for aerospace engineering

The University of South Carolina Molinaroli College of Engineering and Computing aerospace engineering undergraduate program was established in 2018 in response to rapidly growing industry demand. Assistant Professor Wout De Backer, a pioneer of the program, underscores hands-on learning and collaboration while inspiring his students with his passion for aircraft design and innovation in composites through additive manufacturing (3D printing).

A native of Belgium, he attended Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering, focusing on aircraft design and composite structures. De Backer later completed his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at USC in 2017 and was subsequently hired as a research assistant. In 2022, he became an assistant professor for the aerospace program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering

“From a young age I’ve been interested in aerospace, but it’s hard to find an entry-level job in aircraft design because positions are typically reserved for experienced engineers,” De Backer says. “In order to complement my passion with employability, I learned how to look at aircraft design with composites. It’s adding that extra flavor to structures that, if done right, can give an aircraft a competitive performance edge.” 

Following his education, De Backer worked remotely as an intern and project engineer for California-based AlphaSTAR Corporation, running composite simulations and structural analysis on next-generation passenger aircraft. His supervisor, Frank Abdi, Ph.D., encouraged him to pursue his doctorate, which led him to USC in 2014. 

“I was admitted for a Ph.D. to several universities in the United States and Europe, but the novelty of the aerospace program, the starting of the McNair Center and the proximity to the rapidly-growing South Carolina aerospace market driven by companies like Boeing and Gulfstream were the deciding factors for USC,” De Backer says.

During his post-doctoral research, De Backer was leading the Robotic Additive Manufacturing team at the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research. He continues to lead the work in the lab, which he rebranded as Additive Manufacturing of Composites and Design Engineering (AMCODE) to emphasize the focus of his work: additive manufacturing, composites and design engineering. 

Working with colleagues and students, De Backer has developed a new additive manufacturing platform, a 3D printing process that uses continuous fibers to combine the flexibility of 3D printing with the strength and other characteristics of composite materials. The patented process allows for the design of aircraft materials that are strong, light and can print an infinite number of geometries with minimal tooling.

“Our research focuses on combining fused filament fabrication-based additive manufacturing and composites with manufacturing automation to ensure repeatability, and to tie the part to the process. This and other high-rate additive manufacturing technologies are the future of aerospace engineering—making high-performance parts faster while at the same time maintaining or exceeding quality and reliability and therefore safety,” De Backer says. “In the AMCODE lab, we look at all different options for manufacturing something and use, or, if needed, develop, the one that’s best. It’s the backbone of what we do.”

De Backer has helped build USC’s aerospace engineering program from the ground up, designing instruction materials for each of his four courses based on the latest aerospace developments. The program has grown from an initial cohort of four students in 2018 to 224 for the 2023-24 academic year. 

“One of the deciding factors that attracted me to USC was the opportunity to join something new,” he says. “I wanted to help build something that hopefully has a long and prosperous life. Now, 10 years after starting my career at USC, our aerospace research and education has greatly surpassed the expectations I had coming in as a young Ph.D. student, and for that and many other reasons, I’m proud to call Columbia and USC home.”

De Backer shares his passion for aircraft design and additive manufacturing with his students by emphasizing that education goes beyond the classroom and encouraging them to participate in research. Joshua Widawsky is a project manager at the McNair Center and studied under De Backer while earning his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. 

“While pursuing my degree, I had the privilege of being taught by Wout. He consistently went above and beyond to help his students learn and was dedicated to improving the aerospace engineering curriculum,” Widawsky says. “Even after graduation, Wout has remained a colleague who excels and continuously strives to make the lives of those around him easier.”

Whether in the lab or classroom, De Backer prioritizes collaboration, a skill students will need for careers in industry when developing technology and solutions that will be used and built upon for years to come.

“What we are teaching is not just knowledge, but processes and collaboration,” he says. “In aerospace, and most other fields, you don’t build it on your own. Someone is going to work with you, for you or after you on something you’ve worked on, and the only way to the finish line is through collaboration. Together with the hundreds of thousands of people walking the path with you, we can achieve things that would be impossible alone, inspiring the next generation to dream even bigger and reach even further.”

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.