Oak Ridge Group Leader Promotes “Moon Shots”

At the recent AMUG conference, Oak Ridge National Lab’s Dr. Lonnie Love stressed the need to commit to bold objectives in order to advance additive manufacturing into realizing the promise it is destined to deliver. Here are some other highlights of the AMUG event.


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Additive manufacturing has been proven—it can make end-use production components, and even makes it possible to realize products that could not be manufactured in any other way. So why isn’t AM more pervasive? Why is this method of making parts not in more widespread use?

There are many reasons. Cost is one. Learning curve is another. The lack of validated acceptance among important customers for these parts is yet another. But according to Lonnie Love, Ph.D., group leader of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Systems Research Group, one of the main reasons AM has not progressed farther is a simple reticence about making the leap into something so dramatically new. Industry needs a push, he says, and in the absence of an outside push, industry ought to push itself.

That was his message in a keynote address at the recent Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG) conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The 27-year-old annual conference this year drew over 850 people, its highest attendance ever.

To advance the adoption of additive manufacturing, Dr. Love says industry needs “forcing functions.” He used the analogy of the 1960s commitment to put a man on the moon. Scientists and engineers knew a moon landing was possible, but the commitment to actually do it was needed in order to overcome the obstacles to turn that theory into an accomplished fact. Dr. Love says the advance of additive manufacturing needs smaller-scale “moon shots” just like this.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently rose to meet such a moon shot. Car maker Local Motors determined in 2014 that it would 3D print a car at that year’s International Manufacturing Technology Show, and ORNL joined Local Motors in committing to this goal. One of the technologies to arise from pursuing this aim was Cincinnati Incorporated’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine—a system for quickly producing large 3D printed structures out of (in the case of the car) plastic resin filled with carbon.

The first car produced this way was far from perfect, says Dr. Love, but perfection wasn’t required. The aim instead was proof of concept, and the IMTS example delivered that—the major elements of creating a custom car this way were developed and successfully deployed. Once the first 3D printed car had been created, the questions were clear. For example, how can impact absorption be designed in? How can surface finish be improved? The answers to these secondary, more focused engineering challenges began to appear in the second version of the 3D printed car. The next challenge, he says, will be to use the BAAM technology to 3D print a modular house.

Thus, his question to companies that expect additive manufacturing to be part of their future is this: What moon shot can be announced—what bold commitment can be made—in order to move into that future today?

My colleague Stephanie Monsanty and I attended the AMUG conference. Here are some other highlights we saw:

  • A presentation by Linear Mold’s Robert Henderson on achieving production of metal parts through additive manufacturing was standing room only. Employees of the conference venue rushed to bring in more chairs, but so many people were standing that it took nearly the entire length of the presentation to get them all seats. The promise for making production parts is where the greatest interest in 3D printing technology seems to lie.
  • Jim LaHood, engineering specialist at Caterpillar, spoke about the company’s Nomad 3D printer program, which has placed six 3D printers at various company facilities on a temporary basis. The program allows employees to become familiar with additive technologies by using them to produce hand tools, gages and other shopfloor implements, with the eventual goal of using the same method to build legacy equipment parts and other production workpieces.
  • Heart surgeon William Cohn described a design for an artifical heart relying on additive-manufactured titanium components. Cows are living today with the replacement heart, which holds great promise to help humans. These future recipients of the replacement heart will not have a pulse (as the cows do not today), because the artificial heart is continuous flow.
  • A presentation delivered by PostProcess Technologies’ Patrick Gannon focused on batch finishing of additively manufactured metal parts. The service bureau has found success in using a multi-stage and multimedia approach to gradually improve surface finish on these parts.
  • Speaking during a panel discussion on the “state of the industry,” Tim Gormet of the University of Louisville cited design software as a key weakness of additive manufacturing currently. In order for part designs to take full advantage of the freedom additive provides, better simulation of factors such as stresses and cellular structures is needed.
  • During the same panel presentation, David Lee of Stratasys predicted that the biggest gains to be made in additive manufacturing will come with improved productivity of additive machines as well as reduced material and machine prices.
  • Ed Herderick, additive technologies leader with GE, described a challenge with advancing additive manufacturing that his company is now facing: the need to rapidly qualify suppliers. The search for companies able to apply additive technology for production often brings in sources that aren’t part of GE’s established manufacturing network.
  • Banners around the event thanking sponsor companies included some interesting brands. We attend a lot of industrial conferences—the sponsors are typically suppliers of industrial equipment or products. At this event, in addition to additive technology suppliers, GE was also a prominent sponsor. The OEM wants to see additive manufacturing continue to advance. Another sponsor was Target, the retailer, which is now working with Shapeways to provide 3D printed products.