3D printing machines can't be built fast enough, ORNL expert says

  • 20-Jun-2016 04:21 EDT

The DoE's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is now home to the world’s largest polymer 3D printer. The new BAAM (Big Area Additive Manufacturing) machine is another result of ORNL’s yearlong collaboration with Cincinnati Inc., a 126-year-old tool manufacturing company.

As Deposition Science and Technology Group Leader at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Ryan Dehoff facilitates the development of additive manufacturing of components, utilizing various techniques including electron beam melting, laser metal deposition and ultrasonic additive manufacturing. He is developing processing techniques and exploring new materials via additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) to improve energy efficiency during component production, decrease material waste and improve material performance. We recently spoke with Dehoff to learn more.

What are some of the new applications where additive manufacturing could potentially be used?

A couple of examples I’ve seen in the automotive industry are things like utilization of metal powder bed systems to make injection mold tooling. That’s a really big application for additive manufacturing because you don’t necessarily have to certify and qualify an end-use part, but it can dramatically increase the cycle time of injection molded components and therefore lead to decreased cost of producing that component. People are also looking at utilizing additive technologies to build prototype engines that they might want to go into production in the future. So they’re trying to make those engines more efficient and more cost-effective through design optimization, and additive gives them a valuable tool to be able to go through and look at those designs prior to going into the casting or production process.

Where is the 3D printing standards discussion at currently?

The standards that are being developed, I think, are a good first step in implementation of additive into different industrial applications. But I think the big challenge with additive is it may be difficult to actually qualify and certify parts with a conventional mind-set. There are a lot of different groups; I know there are several different standards organizations and they all have efforts in additive manufacturing ongoing. Some of the government standards organizations also have some fairly large efforts going on in how to certify and qualify additive. It would be good to make sure as we go through and start trying to develop those standards that it’s not only the aerospace community that’s involved in standards development. But it’s also automotive and other industrial sectors that are involved with that development work.

What are the advantages of Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) technology?

That was a relatively rapid advance in the technology through our collaboration with industry. Cincinnati Inc. is now selling that technology as a commercial platform, and there are others that are also looking into large-area additive systems. One of the unique things that brought to the table is that it really changed the way people thought about additive. Traditionally, we don’t put down a lot of material; in the case of BAAM, we’re able to put down 70 lb (32 kg), upwards of 100 lb (45 kg) of material an hour. You can get very high deposition rates, go to very large scales that weren’t really seen across the industry before. It really helped to revolutionize people’s thought process on what additive manufacturing means.

How do you see the automotive industry embracing additive manufacturing?

There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that a lot of people aren’t necessarily talking about. Because it does have the potential to revolutionize people’s business cases. Right now, most of the additive manufacturing are niche applications, especially in the automotive industry. We have a tendency for additive parts to focus on customization. An example of the potential for customization is something like Jay Rogers from Local Motors, and what he’s trying to do is make a micro-factory where you may come in and design your car. At the same time, we see that going down into mass customization for the tool and die industry where you can start getting into very low-volume production as well, which is a little bit unique and a niche market. Eventually it may be adopted well beyond that also.

Is the aerospace industry much farther along in terms of adopting additive manufacturing?

The general trend that I’ve seen in the industry over the past decade is that aerospace seemed to be the main driver because it had huge payoffs associated with making components lighter and making components more efficient. What we’re starting to see in the additive world is that the costs of components are dropping, the technology is becoming more reliable, you can get parts fabricated faster and that’s allowing different industries to adopt additive technologies like the auto industry. There are some unique things that I know Cummins has done where they’ve been able to increase the efficiency of their engine through additive technologies. I don’t know if it’s being bulk adopted for 3D printing of car frames or bumpers; that’s probably not where we’re going to be any time soon, but on specific applications in turbochargers, water pumps and engine housings, those types of things may be a reality sooner than we think.

What are some of the materials being considered for additive?

Holistically, most of the materials that are being developed are materials that we currently use today in castings or machine forms. I think we’re limiting ourselves a little bit when we do that. What we’re starting to see a general trend in is the development of new materials specifically designed with the very harsh thermal environment during the processing condition. We get a lot of thermal transients during building. Those thermal transients can be very hard on conventional materials, but if we’re developing materials specifically in mind of being processed with additive we can actually make better material than we can today with other processes. In the next 10 years you’ll start to see customized materials specifically for additive manufacturing.

What are some of the challenges yet to be overcome?

One of the things that I see as a unique challenge in additive manufacturing is as these technologies show promise the additive manufacturing community is growing at a tremendous rate. If you look at some of the reports by Terry Wohlers [of consulting firm Wohlers Associates], there’s a huge compound annual growth associated with additive manufacturing. In some cases, we can’t actually build machines fast enough. There are a lot of companies out there that are machine vendors where if you order a machine today, you may have to wait a year until that machine arrives at your factory, there’s that much demand on the industry.

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