Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a new supersized 3D printer — perhaps the largest in the world — and plans to shift its research on additive manufacturing over the next few years to emphasize working with metals such as steel and aluminum.
The goal is to lower the cost and increase the speed to make 3D printing a viable alternative for large-scale, mainstream manufacturing.
The new machine is housed at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility off Hardin Valley Road in West Knox County. It’s capable of printing components up to 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet tall, according to Lonnie Love, head of the lab’s manufacturing systems research group.
That easily surpasses the BAAM (Big Area Additive Manufacturing) system that the lab used to build the world’s first car via 3D printing with assembly by Local Motors. That project attracted international attention and was followed by ORNL’s printing and assembly of a replica Shelby Cobra, which was a focal point of President Obama’s visit to East Tennessee earlier this year.
It’s not easy to determine if ORNL’s new system is the biggest in the world. “Well, it’s pretty close if it isn’t,” Love noted.
The new printer doesn’t have an official name, but it’s being called Bertha, he said. It’s another product of ORNL’s yearlong collaboration with Cincinnati Inc., a tool-manufacturing company that — with a lot of help from the national lab — has reinvented itself as a supplier of 3D manufacturing systems.
The partnership has been “unbelievably successful,” Love said.
“We took a 116-year-old-year machine tool manufacturing company and overnight they’re a powerhouse in 3D printing,” he said. “They hadn’t had a new product line in about 20 years. We’ve taken them from being their father’s company to their children’s company.”
ORNL is looking to extend its relationship with Cincinnati, with the likely signing of a new 10-year collaborative agreement.
The prototype printer that’s undergoing testing and refinement at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility was converted from a laser cutting machine at Cincinnati and delivered a couple of weeks ago, Love said.
The Oak Ridge lab has rapidly become a world leader in additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. It plans to shift the emphasis away from components made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics and explore the use of other materials, including common metals such as steel and aluminum.
Heretofore, most of the metals introduced in additive manufacturing were high-end, expensive materials, such as titanium, Love said.
“What we’re trying to do is really industrialize this,” he said, envisioning the future manufacturing of low-cost steel components for earth-moving equipment, buses and trucks.
“To do that, you’ve got to decrease the cost of (3D printing) and increase the speed,” he said.
The potential applications seem almost endless.
Love said the team members have already made models for kayaks and canoes and are looking ahead to manufacturing boats. He said they’re also looking at much larger models for such things as wind turbine blades.
Local Motors reportedly plans to use two or three of the supersized printers at its new factory in Knoxville, not far from ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, and begin making cars next year.
Just as the development of the semiconductor created Silicon Valley, Love sees advanced manufacturing creating a valley of growth in East Tennessee. “This area will be known for that,” he said.
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