ORNL’s Lonnie Love: ‘I think we’re positioning ourselves to be a world leader in advanced manufacturing’

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Alex Rochli, senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, left, and James Earle, a UT grad and the first Local Motors’ Tennessee employee, working on the 3D-printed car at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. (ORNL photo/Lonnie Love)

Earlier this week, I had a chance to talk by phone with Lonnie Love, additive manufacturing guru and head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s manufacturing systems research group. Love was among the 120,000 or so folks who were at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, and he was excited by the excitement all around — especially work on the world’s first 3D-printed car (which is to be driven for the first time on Saturday).

ORNL staff members and affiliates were very much involved in developing the vehicle that was printed over a two-day period, using some of the additive manufacturing techniques pioneered at the Oak Ridge lab. The exhibit was drawing big crowds at the show.

Local Motors, which has a collaborative research agreement with ORNL, produced the car and has plans for many more in the future. Love said Local Motors is opening a storefront in Knoxville, with a factory to follow.

The expertise at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in additive manufacturing (and advanced materials) is a big attraction.

Another company involved is Cincinnati Inc., which early this year signed a cooperative agreement with ORNL. Cincinnati is a manufacturing company with a long history that’s now going to focus on building additive manufacturing systems for others. The additive manufacturing system that produced the car at the Chicago show was a machine from Cincinnati Inc.

“Over the next 5 to 10 years, a lot of manufacturing companies could be moving into East Tennessee,” Love said.

“Oak Ridge is a special place,” he said, “and I think we’re positioning ourselves to be a world leader in advanced manufacturing.”

The uses of 3D printing seem infinite at this point, with lots of room for growth. Manufacturing cars today. Planes — or at least wings and other parts of them — tomorrow.

Asked about limitations on the type of materials that can be used for 3D printing, he said, “Anything you can melt you can grow into a part. You can do metals. You can do plastics.”

At this point, additive manufacturing is still a small slice of the overall manufacturing world, the ORNL researcher said.

Manufacturing worldwide is about a $11 trillion industry, Love said, whereas additive manufacturing is only about a  $2 billion industry at this stage.

“But it’s growing faster than anything else,” he said.

Using the specially developed Big Area Additive Manufacturing System, ORNL has produced large components in record time. Some parts that previously took six months to nine months to produce can now be manufactured in six to nine hours, Love said. The cost dropped from half a million dollars to $1,000, he said.

Love said the lab earlier did a project for the Navy, printing out some tools. They were delivered in five days. When the Navy contact asked how long it took and how much it cost, Love said the answer was that it cost more and took longer to ship the tools to the customer than it did to make them.

Over the past 10 years, the American tool industry has been in steady decline, with a lot of the manufacturing moving to Asia, Love said. But he indicated that could be about to change, at least for some of the products.

“Asia can’t compete with us,” he said. “We can make things bigger and faster and cheaper.”

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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.