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Printing a house or an underwater vessel was an outlandish idea a decade ago. Now, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and others are making rapid revisions to this technology to bring it to market in new ways, making the impossible possible.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is helping launch a new manufacturing technology, putting some brains and muscles on the bones of the next industrial revolution.

ORNL has been working with industrial firms to develop large-scale 3D printers and low-cost materials — from carbon-fiber composites to metallic alloys — for the manufacture of tools, dies, molds and product parts.

The Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF), an ORNL user facility, has become a magnet for numerous industrial firms, 25 universities and high-school and middle-school student teams that build robots for local and international competitions.

And speaking of magnets, MDF recently won an R&D 100 award for producing magnets from neodymium-iron-boron material using large-scale 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, or AM. That was just one of ORNL’s many awards in the AM area.

In 2016, ORNL and Boeing, a leading U.S. aerospace company, were presented with a Guinness Book of World Records title for the production of the largest solid 3D-printed part. ORNL researchers at MDF had developed the winning tool for use in manufacturing the wing extension for the Boeing 777X passenger jet. Boeing found that additive manufacturing of the ORNL tool helped cut costs and production time for the aerospace firm.

In a recent talk to Friends of ORNL, MDF Director Bill Peter talked about these and other accomplishments. He said the goals of the MDF are to make the nation more economically competitive “using additive and composite processes in mainstream industries to achieve energy and national security applications while increasing domestic job growth.”

ORNL personnel at the MDF, he added, conduct research, collaborate with industry and educate and train industrial researchers, government employees and university students about materials and additive manufacturing.

AM, or 3D printing, refers to various processes that fabricate three-dimensional (3D) objects by adding material layer by layer or from the bottom up to create a variety of parts whose shapes and sizes are dictated by computer models. The material is deposited on a platform that drops slightly before the next layer is added.

One result of the collaboration and training offered at MDF is a 3D-printed prototype submersible designed and built in four weeks for the Office of Naval Research (ONR). In the first week, 25 naval architects visited MDF for five days to learn AM design rules before designing the sub. In the second week, seven ONR engineers worked with ORNL to print the submersible parts. During the last two weeks, MDF and Navy personnel assembled and delivered the sub.

“The Navy sees 3D printing as a revolutionary way to produce a Navy vessel,” Peter said. “In conventional manufacturing, it takes 15 to 25 years to design and 10 years to make it. AM can greatly speed up the design production of naval vessels. The ability to make naval vessels in a little over a month is important in the event of imminent maritime war.”

Three years ago, MDF developed with industrial partner Cincinnati Inc., a Big Area Additive Manufacturing System that builds, or prints, a polymer matrix with carbon-fiber-reinforced material. “So far the company has sold 15 large-scale 3D printers, or BAAM systems, commercially,” Peter said. “We helped create a new industry.”

MDF researchers have also developed methods for printing large parts made of high-cost titanium (for the aircraft industry), a low-cost type of steel and a nickel-chromium alloy called Inconel, which is highly resistant to corrosion and high temperatures and pressures. And they have worked with industry to develop AM machines that produce a mold or tool within hours and lower-cost materials that have improved chemical properties.

“One award we shared in December was for using bio-derived pellets made by Techmer PM in Clinton to increase deposition rates. Techmer adds natural fibers, such as bamboo, poplar and other cellulosic natural fibers, to its polymer pellets. The fibers in the pellets keep large-area printed layers from curling up during cooling.”

Over one-third of the U.S. tool, die and mold establishments has gone out of business, according to the 2012 U.S. Congressional Report. The U.S. ranks 17th in manufacturing. Some 70 to 80 percent of tools, dies and molds used in the U.S. are imported, mostly from Asia.

“We want to produce tools, dies and molds locally where they are needed,” Peter said. “We want to shave the cost of making titanium components for the aircraft industry by 10 to 100 times and decrease overall cost. Also with AM we hope to produce tools in two weeks instead of the six to 12 months required by conventional manufacturing.” He added that a company called DPI “made wind turbine blades off the tools we printed.”

Peter noted that “one of our objectives is to make new geometric shapes that couldn’t be made by 3D printing before. We are looking at how to reduce the cost of carbon fiber production so lightweight but strong carbon-fiber composites can be used in vehicles, wind turbine blades and gas storage containers.”

ORNL is helping industry develop machines that have increased deposition rates and produce larger build volumes from lower-cost materials with improved properties.

“When we got started, the overall printer deposition rate for polymer materials was 1.4 cubic inches per hour,” Peter said. “The cost of material was $50 to $150 per pound. The largest build volume of a part was two feet by two feet by three feet tall.

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