3D Printing Bringing Innovation in Manufacturing to Knoxville, Eastern Tennessee’s “Innovation Valley”


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ornl-logoWhen I hit the road and head south, I’m usually going to visit my grandparents, who currently live about an hour west of Knoxville. I’ve spent many hours in my life driving through beautiful Tennessee, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn today that Knoxville is not only considered to be a center of innovation, thanks in large part to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), but is also majorly focused on 3D printing. That’s right, eastern Tennessee is one of the most popular and busy areas for additive manufacturing in America…and maybe even the world! Local civic boosters have even dubbed it “Innovation Valley.”


AMIE at IMTS in September [Photo: Sarah Goehrke for 3DPrint.com]

If you recall, ORNL was founded in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb during WWII. More recently, researchers at the facility worked with architecture firm Skidmore, Orings & Merrill (SOM) to fabricate a 3D printed mobile home. The Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy (AMIE) project is a high-tech vehicle that’s paired with the lightweight, 3D printed mobile home; it kind of looks like an Airstream for the new millennium. The research being done at ORNL, coupled with government support of advanced manufacturing, is making Knoxville look pretty appealing to innovative manufacturing companies. Remember the giant 3D printed bamboo pavilion at Design Miami a few weeks ago? It was created by New York-based SHoP Architects, who collaborated with Tennessee-based Branch Technology and utilized ORNL’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine for the project. In Knoxville and nearby Clinton factories, companies are 3D printing homes, and even cars!

“I can think of five companies off the top of my head who have moved to this area due to a partnership with the lab. The mayor of Knoxville, Madeline Rogero, has really taken a hold of this, and it has become a point of pride in Knoxville,” Brittany Cramer, program outreach specialist at ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, explained.


A 3D printed car from Local Motors at IMTS in September [Photo: Sarah Goehrke for 3DPrint.com]

One of the companies eyeing Knoxville is Local Motors, an Arizona-based automaker that develops 3D printed cars. They are opening a microfactory in Knoxville early in the new year, which should employ 50-100 people once the factory is fully operational. The decision is partially because their plastic pellet supplier, Techmer, is right down the road, and also due to the fact that they’ve worked with ORNL before. Local Motors teamed up with the research facility to create the first 3D printed car, the Strati, back in 2014 (which Jay Leno had a chance to drive!), and also a copy of a classic Shelby Cobra.

“The primary reason we opened the microfactory here is the relationship with Oak Ridge. It’s going to be a place where the public can see what we’re doing, and there’s growing interest around that in Knoxville,” says Adam Kress, the company’s director of public relations.

rc8003Starting next year, the Knoxville microfactory will be able to 3D print motor vehicles on 20′ by 10′ by 10′ machines in just 24 hours, and fully assemble cars that are ready for the road in only days. They will also be working to manufacture Olli, the 3D printed, self-driving bus that hit the streets of Washington, D.C. this summer and the halls of IMTS in the autumn.

Speaking of big 3D printers, ORNL is developing a next-generation one with Ingersoll, called the WHAM (Wide and High Additive Manufacturing) machine. It will measure 23′ by 10′ by 46′, and have a throughput of 1,000 lbs. of material an hour! Most of ORNL’s 3D printed capabilities come from its Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF), which has over 60 metal and polymer printers and a composites lab. Ever since the lab made the (incredibly smart) decision to extend its focus on additive manufacturing nearly a decade ago, it has refined and augmented 3D printing possibilities, from plastic to carbon fiber and even metal. William Peter, who runs the MDF, says they have teamed up with over 700 entities to help them acquire experience with new technology:

“We can offer companies a chance to reform or rethink how they design. And we can bring to bear some pretty big tools they don’t normally have access to.”


[Image: Local Motors via Curbed]

This summer Boeing and ORNL worked together to 3D print a tool out of thermoplastic that’s roughly the same size as an SUV, and is now considered the largest solid 3D printed object ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records! The ORNL staff will travel to Vegas for a trade show in March, and display the first ever 3D printed excavator, which they 3D printed at their facility.

ORNL isn’t the only innovative company in eastern Tennessee. Part of the Obama Administration’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation also calls Knoxville home. The $250 million public-private partnership began last year, and focuses on funding advances in industrial technology. The consortium works with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the Department of Energy, and has given a very helpful boost to the region’s advanced manufacturing base. Discuss in the East Tennessee forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Curbed]

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