ORNL going big on 3-D printing; teams with Ohio firm on system to build large-scale polymer parts

Oak Ridge National Laboratory will partner with an Ohio company over the next year to develop an additive manufacturing system — also known as 3-D printing — capable of producing large-scale polymer parts much faster and a lot cheaper than today’s technologies.

ORNL Director Thom Mason and Anderson Jamison, the chief executive officer of Cincinnati Incorporated, signed a cooperative research and development agreement on Monday at the lab’s Manufacturing Development Facility — where the collaborative work will take place.

According to Mason, the new system could be a “game-changer” for the auto and aerospace industries. He said major corporations, such as Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, have already shown their interest and were ready to buy it yesterday.

Cincinnati Incorporated, a manufacturer of high-quality machine tools based in Harrison, Ohio, plans to build the new manufacturing systems, tailor them for specific needs, and then sell them to other manufacturers.

Jamison said he could’t say how much the large-scale manufacturing systems would cost, but he acknowledged each one would cost millions of dollars.

ORNL is a leading research center for advanced manufacturing technologies and has been in the forefront for some uses of additive manufacturing. Most systems developed to date, however, have been on a much smaller scale than the one being developed with Cincinnati. The new system will be capable of producing parts at least 10 times larger, with components greater than a cubic meter and hundreds of times faster than existing manufacturing techniques, officials said.

Cincinnati Incorporated with bring some of its advanced tools to ORNL’s manufacturing facility off Hardin Valley Road in Knox County. Those technologies, such as the company’s advanced laser cutting system, will be adapted into a supersized 3-D printer, creating a prototype for the project. Industry representatives are expected to come to the site to test the capabilities.

David Danielson, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, said projects such as this are helping reestablish the United States as a competitor in global manufacturing.

“We’ve taken it on the chin the last 20 to 30 years,” Danielson said.

The U.S. is poised for a comeback, he said, adding, “You can’t just invent it here and manufacture it there.”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.