DOE Pulse
  • Number 414  |
  • May 26, 2014

ORNL's Amy Elliott sees the dream of 3-D printing

Patricia Solvignon holds a newly created bridge position as a staff scientist at Jefferson Lab and an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.

ORNL's Amy Elliott

Once a contestant on a reality television series, Amy Elliott now delves into the reality of 3-D printing as a postdoc at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

At ORNL, Elliott’s research focuses on improving a variety of 3-D printers. Her ultimate goal is to develop a 3-D printer that can manufacture a smorgasbord of materials, including metals.

Elliott’s engineering interest ignited in high school while designing a robotic arm for the FIRST Robotics Competition. The competition meshes science, technology and professional mentors to create a “real-world engineering” competition for high school students, and the experience awakened her creativity and mechanical engineering talents.

“I guess I had an aptitude for it,” Elliot said. “And I definitely had a passion for it.”

She received her bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University in mechanical engineering. As an undergrad, Elliott worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where she developed skills in a variety of areas including precision machining, 3-D computer modeling and project management.

Elliott then pursued her doctoral degree at Virginia Tech, where she worked in the Design, Research and Education for Additive Manufacturing Systems (DREAMS) Laboratory.

At the DREAMS Lab, Elliott created the world’s first 3-D printing vending machine. Available for use by Virginia Tech students, Elliott describes the DreamVendor as a “vending machine with an infinite inventory.” The DreamVendor helped Elliott and her team crowd source and understand what uses the public has for 3-D printing.

One Virginia Tech student used the machine to create a faucet adapter to fix the sink in his dorm. “People are going to start thinking in terms of additive manufacturing,” Elliott said.

As a doctoral student, Elliott auditioned for Discovery Channel’s “The Big Brain Theory,” and was selected as one of 10 finalists. She got the chance to use her expertise and creativity to solve difficult engineering problems.

Elliot said the most helpful part of the show was understanding the role of failure.

“I used to be afraid to fail and would spend a lot of time and resources avoiding failure,” Elliott said. “I guess that’s the natural inclination of us engineers—we don’t want to fail because people depend on our work.”

Instead, Elliott recognized failure as a powerful learning tool—a tool that can help her learn facets of an engineering system that she may have never predicted.

During her postdoc decision, she interviewed with both NASA and ORNL, comparing the institutions’ atmospheres. In August 2013, she joined ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.

“With thousands of visitors, there are opportunities to intersect people’s ideas with our technology,” Elliott said. “At ORNL we are going full speed with everything.”

Elliott’s days at ORNL revolve around research to make 3-D printing machines smarter, more robust and more energy efficient—at the same price point. Currently, 3-D printers “need a babysitter,” Elliott said.

She envisions a desktop 3-D printer that crafts the product without requiring supervision. “I don’t want to have to watch it, but I want to know if there’s a ‘paper jam,’” she said.

ORNL is working with 3-D printing companies to make these improvements. “We are walking beside them and giving supplemental help,” Elliott said.

Many 3-D printing companies desire a machine that can manipulate metals, especially titanium and copper. Traditionally, the formation of metals involved lasers and eBeams. This process has expanded to binder jetting technology, which is a process that bonds the layers of a material to form an object. Binder jetting is cheaper, simpler and doesn’t require heat in the forming process.

This research exposes Elliott to a number of different 3-D printers of all sizes. “I can cross-pollinate what I’ve learned from each process and then create a new process,” she said.

When she’s not in her 3-D printing lab, Elliott enjoys snowboarding, hiking, camping, kayaking and being outdoors. She also enjoys building things, especially furniture, on the weekend.

Up next on her to-do list is kinetic art. This style of art incorporates movement to multidimensional sculptures and figures. Her passion for 3-D printing permeates her life.

Elliott wants to make an additive manufacturing process that can produce any material—“the sky’s the limit,” she said.

From stamp molds for car manufacturing to submarine accessories for the Navy, 3-D printing has the potential to benefit a number of industries. That’s Elliott’s favorite part about working at the MDF. She predicts that one in five people will have a 3-D printer in their home within five years.

“I think it’s every engineer’s dream to contribute something tangible to society,” Elliott said. “And that’s what MDF does.” – Lauren Gregg

Submitted by DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory