Printing out the future

ORNL leads a wave of collaborative research in additive manufacturing


It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday, and robotics engineer Lonnie Love needs a new set of mechanical fingers. A few decades ago, he might have spent days or weeks tooling down a hunk of metal, like a sculptor pain stakingly carving a statue. Today, all Love has to do is pull up a computer drawing and push a few buttons. In a couple of hours, a kiln-like machine spits out the parts to form a hand made out of titanium mesh.

ORNL is opening its doors to companies interested in using 3-D printing for products ranging from heavy equipment to biomedical implants. Photo: Jason Richards

ORNL is opening its doors to companies interested in using 3-D printing for products ranging from heavy equipment to biomedical implants. Photo: Jason Richards

It’s called additive manufacturing, and it’s not a fictitious technology from the Terminator movies. Also known as 3-D printing, additive manufacturing is still in its infancy compared to traditional manufacturing techniques, but it has a growing number of applications, such as biomedical equipment, aerospace parts, and military suppliers.

Love, an ORNL researcher, is part of a team funded by the Departmentof Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office that is working toapply new technologies like 3-D printing on an industrial scale, with an aim of reenergizing the American manufacturing sector.

Unlike conventional methods that have been used since the Industrial Revolution, additive manufacturing entails building a product from scratch by putting down layer after layer of a raw material such as a metal powder or a plastic polymer.

“Additive manufacturing is when you grow parts rather than removing parts,” Love says. “You add material only where you need it.” The process allows the team to quickly fabricate oddly shaped or complex parts—like fingers for a prosthetic hand—that would be difficult or even impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing methods.

“It redefines what it means to design to manufacture,” Love says. “If you think it, you can make it.”

Interest in 3-D printing has exploded in recent years as the technology has improved and printer prices have plummeted. Once prohibitively expensive, printers are now starting to move outside high-tech research labs into homes and high school classrooms. But while these desktop systems may be fun for hobbyists, the real opportunity for 3-D printing lies with industrial applications, says Craig Blue, who directs ORNL’s advanced manufacturing program.

“We’re focused on taking it from a prototyping or modeling technology to a manufacturing technology,” Blue says. “If you look at 3-D printers found in high schools, the materials they use don’t have engineering properties. In other words, you can’t use the parts they produce for practical applications. You can use them for models, but you’re not going to put the final product on an aircraft or a car. When we’re done, you will be able to do just that.”

Testing the waters

To help turn additive manufacturing into a mainstream practice, ORNL is opening its doors to companies that are interested in using 3-D printing for applications from multiton material-handling equipmentto tiny biomedical implants. Hundreds of companies are already working alongside ORNL staff to take advantage of the lab’s newly completed Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, or MDF, funded by DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.

With approximately 20,000 square feet of space that houses state-of-the-art 3-D printers and processing equipment, the MDF offers companies large and small the chance to test the waters ofadditive manufacturing by trying out their ideas in a reduced-risk environment. But access to equipment isn’t the only draw. Blue says a distinguishing feature of the MDF is a staff with decades of expertise in materials research and development, combined with ORNL’s other unique facilities.

“From a materials stand point, we’re basically unparalleled,” he says. “We can bring large science tools like ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source to help rapidly qualify a material or process.”

In addition to introducing companies to the potential of additive manufacturing, ORNL is working to advance 3-D printing technologies by collaborating with equipment providers like Stratasys and Arcam to improve the systems and controls on commercially available machines. ORNL researchers are also experimenting with feedstock materials, including new types of metal powders that could open up possibilities for new applications by offering increased strength and lower costs.

Shipping electrons

Beyond its transformational impact on the manufacturing industry, Blue explains that benefits of 3-D printing could spread into areas like logistics and supply chain management. Military supplylines, for instance, which are typically dangerous and costly areas of operation, might reap major benefits if 3-D printers could be used to help troops repair equipment more efficiently.

“We have military systems that are 20 or 30 years old, so you have to maintain the supply chain for that equipment for 30 years,” Blue says. “It would be nice to only keep track of electrons. What if you just could carry around a CD of all the part drawings to take care of a piece of equipment? That would be unbelievable—to print a parton demand.”

In the face of an increasingly global economy in which companies are moving more manufacturing facilities and jobs overseas, 3-D printing also provides companies with incentives to bring business back to the United States by offering rapid prototyping and quick turnarounds on finished products.

“If you’re in a dynamic industry, you can’t depend on materials shipped from China,” Blue says. “If you’re shipping electrons, you get it instantaneously. One of the mantras for additive manufacturing is ‘design anywhere, build anywhere.’ You can have these machines distributed so that you don’t have to think about shipping costs. If these machines are in every town, then you can ship the electrons to wherever you need to have your product.”

The increased efficiency of additive manufacturing provides additional savings to interested companies in terms of materials and energy. For example, the average component in the aerospace industry requires eight pounds of raw materials to produce one pound of aerospace-ready product. Since 3-D printing uses only just enough material to get the part done, it can reduce this “buy-to-fly” ratio from 8:1 to nearly 1:1.

The benefits of a distributed system of 3-D printing machines would not be limited to industrial customers either. Blue says the dream for additive manufacturing could extend to the average handyman who needs a customized part for a home repair.

“There’s a vision in the future that you’ll go to Home Depot because you want this polymer elbow for a fitting,” Blue said. “You’ll touch a machine and your part will come out. We’ll ship electrons; we won’t ship parts anymore.” —Morgan McCorkle