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.