Agreement Capitalizes On ORNL 3-D Printing Methods

Feb 17, 2014

A large-scale 3-D printer creates a plastic chair frame at Oak Ridge National Lab's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, Monday, February 17, 2014.
Credit Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

An agreement signed on Monday means parts for airplanes and cars, as well as household items, may soon be printed instead of manufactured using traditional methods. The research-and-development agreement links Oak Ridge National Laboratory to Ohio-based Cincinnati Incorporated. Together, they'll work on using 3-D printing to make bigger items more cheaply and faster than current methods allow.

"The additive manufacturing machines now make something the size of a shoebox," said Lonnie Love, a robotics team leader at ORNL. "This new machine can make something the size of a car."

That's what car makers want to hear. 3-D printing technology could make it easier to manufacture parts for cars, as well as airplanes and other kinds of transit. Speaking at a press conference Monday, ORNL head Thom Mason mentioned aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed as potential customers of the new manufacturing units.

3-D printing works a little like the kind of printers you might use at your office, only instead of printing ink on a flat surface, a 3-D printer prints the material itself -- typically metal or plastic -- in succeeding layers that eventually form practically anything you want, from the chairs in which officials sat to sign the agreement, to the robotic and engineering mockups on a table nearby.

3-D printers large enough to fabricate big objects will be expensive, but Cincinnati and ORNL are hopeful demand will rise. With new demand, ORNL's Lonnie Love said a boost in employment could follow.

"You build back tooling. That's a foundational sector. And then, you can start hiring more people in higher-quality jobs," he said. Love also said the growing popularity of 3-D printing could add fuel to the growing manufacturing renaissance in the U.S.

Cincinnati Incorporated plans to begin working in a shared warehouse at ORNL's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility in west Knox County within the next month, with hopes of turning out 3-D printers that can be used by other manufacturers within the next year.