Speed. We do not like to wait. Printing a document on a laser printer makes us antsy and that’s fairly quick. Printing a large item on many 3D printers takes an eternity, but the U.S. Government wants to help. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has asked machine tool manufacturer Cincinnati Incorporated to help increase the speed and print size of 3D printing — 200 to 500 times faster and 10 times the size.
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ORNL signed an agreement this month to begin work.
Currently, 3D printing is slow; so slow that it would take you days to print a large product. Many of the print beds, often less than one cubic foot, are built to print small items and even those take a few hours. Compared to traditional means of manufacturing, that crank out products by the minute, 3D printing is not yet fast enough for our mobile, want-it-now world.
Given that the 3D printing industry has existed for three-plus decades, how is it that existing manufacturers are not doing this work on their own? That’s my question and I’m sure one that critics will have – how can a government lab make this happen? In other research I’ve done, it is certainly in the realm of possibility when you look at what other government programs have sparked – most famously, NASA, in the USA, but plenty of others. A big infusion of cash, coupled with smart people often yields tremendous results.
But I reality-checked this with 3D printing expert, Terry Wohlers, who creates the well known 3D printer report that bears his name: Wohlers Report: Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing State of the Industry. He said, “The Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL has been able to pull it off due to its creative, out-of-the-box thinking, coupled with a willingness to invest in a new concept. I know these guys well and I can say without reservation that they are very bright and ambitious.”
Dr. Lonnie Love, ORNL’s group leader in manufacturing systems research, who leads this project shared some of the “how” and “why” this can be accomplished. He said, ”The current ORNL-Cincinnati project draws on expertise gained from a collaboration in large-area additive manufacturing between Lockheed Martin and ORNL, which began in December 2012. The system leverages the injection molding industry. First, the feedstock is pellets so you’re going directly from pellets to parts (rather than a filament). Second, the extruder has a large nozzle (approximately 0.3” in diameter rather than 0.020”).
“The larger nozzle enables a few important things. First, you obviously put down a lot more material faster (two to three orders of magnitude). Second, it enables the extrusion of fiber reinforced material. The fiber reinforcement changes the behavior of the material and enables growing it out of the oven. So the larger nozzle speeds it up but introduces much larger layer stratification (poorer surface finish). However, since it’s out of the oven, we can put a spindle on the same machine and “machine it as we go” to get extremely good surface finish while also providing very high deposition rates.”
My take: If you were going to pick a company to help you invent a new way to manufacture, Cincinnati Incorporated would certainly be high on that list. They are one of the oldest U.S. machine tool makers, since 1898, making build-to-order machines and having shipped more than 31,000 machines in their 114 years of operation.
ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. With their new partnership with Cincinnati Incorporated, they may just prove to be the tipping point in moving 3D printing into the speed and size class of machines that mainstream manufacturers need to make the jump into this clean tech method.