Next-gen engineers

Next-gen engineers meet next-gen manufacturing



Hundreds of East Tennessee students are getting a taste of additive manufacturing through ORNL’s participation in the FIRST robotics competition, an annual nationwide event that promotes science and engineering for high school students. Over the course of 10 weeks in the spring semester, students meet with ORNL engineers and scientists after school and on weekends to design robots that can meet the challenges of the year’s competition. Students learn the ins and outs of additive manufacturing as they develop prototypes and create working components and systems for robots that are required to perform tasks such as playing basketball.

ORNL robotics engineer Lonnie Love, one of the FIRST mentors, says the competition is one way that the lab is preparing the future workforce for high-quality jobs in the additive manufacturing field.

“We’re exposing the next generation of engineers to the next generation of manufacturing,” he says. “The younger generation isn’t encumbered by what it means to design to manufacture, so they come up with some very innovative things.”

ORNL became involved with the FIRST robotics competition in 2011 by mentoring a team from Knoxville’s Hardin Valley Academy in its rookie season and helping the students learn how to design, fabricate and test components. Three HVA students later conducted their senior project at ORNL with a focus on additive manufacturing, and their work resulted in an invention disclosure and interest from multiple robotics companies in licensing the technology. HVA was selected as the top rookie team in regionals and was invited to nationals in St. Louis, where they were again named one of the top rookie teams.

In 2012, ORNL expanded its support to eight high schools and opened up a workspace in its new Manufacturing Demonstration Facility to those interested in learning and using additive manufacturing technologies. In addition, ORNL provided financial assistance, encouraging more ORNL research staff to volunteer as mentors and engaging additive manufacturing companies in providing financial support and hardware donations. Of the eight participating teams, two ranked in the top five in the regional competition, with Oak Ridge High School winning top rookie team honors and HVA receiving an award for engineering excellence.

Love credits Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST, with giving students a reason to get excited about careers in science and engineering.

“Dean noticed that high school students were aspiring to be actors and athletes,” Love says. “He wanted to inspire kids to become scientists and engineers by getting them to work hand in hand with engineers to see what happens when you create something.” —Morgan McCorkle