Tour of ORNL’s 3D Printing Facility: 3D Printed Podium for Obama, Titanium Robotic Arms & More

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It was a distinct pleasure to join a tour of the Manufacturing Development Facility (MDF) of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) on June 23rd, 2015. Our group consisted of College, Career, and Technical Education Directors and leaders from the Tennessee State Department of Education who toured together.

Me sitting in ORNL's first ever 3D printed car.

Me sitting in ORNL’s first ever 3D printed car

Our two tour guides were enthusiastic graduates of Hardin Valley Academy, a high school that is located just a mile down the road from this expansive facility, which prides itself in transforming the next generation of scientific discovery into solutions for rebuilding and revitalizing America’s manufacturing industries. My interest in the tour is heightened by the background I bring as both daughter and sister of two engineers at ORNL, as well as having a role in expanding opportunities for Oak Ridge High School students in the field of advanced manufacturing and mechatronics engineering.

Additionally, ORHS has recently enjoyed the opportunity to compete at the FIRST Robotics World Championships in St. Louis, Missouri for their fourth straight season, where their alliance won the Hopper Division and were FIRST Championship finalists, finishing 2nd in the world. A perk that is offered at ORNL MDF is that several area FIRST robotics teams are mentored in this facility for collaboration, training, innovation, and use of materials. Both of our tour guides were members of one of the teams that meets regularly in this location, and now also serve as interns. Several ORHS students have collaborated with FIRST mentors and served as interns here as well.

Upon arrival to the production floor, the initial and most obvious attraction is the Big Area Additive Manufacturing printer, which is a room-sized 3D printer. It is where the now-famous Shelby Cobra replica was printed for President Obama’s visit to East Tennessee in January. I had heard the Cobra body was made with carbon fiber, and gained the added clarification from our guides that it was actually carbon fiber-reinforced plastic. To my surprise, the material used is actually pellets made from 15% carbon fiber and 85% ABS plastic. Unlike the desktop-model printers we use in schools, the plastic is not an extruded filament, but a pea-sized pellet. This ratio of carbon fiber to plastic provides optimal strength and flexibility. In addition to being one of the most energy-efficient ways to produce a car body, 3D printing also eliminates the kinds of waste manufacturers have long experienced when cutting body parts from sheets of metal.

The Podium Used For President Obama's Visit

The podium used for President Obama’s visit

As we made our way across the production space, we had the pleasure of sitting in chairs that were printed in one piece, with no rivets or moving parts. They were remarkably ergonomic and comfortable. In the same display stood a highly-polished black podium exhibiting the US Department of Energy seal. We learned that this, too was designed and printed in-house for the President’s visit. Our next exhibit included two points of interest including a replica of a fuselage for an F17 fighter jet and the first car model that was ever produced with this Big Area Additive Manufacturing printer.

So far in the tour, everything we had seen printed in 3D had been made of plastic, but as we approached our final destination upstairs, we encountered a titanium powder printer about the size of an industrial refrigerator. The products on display that were produced by it included a buoyant and hollow underwater robotic arm and a chain mechanism printed all in one piece. The ideas of a buoyant metal robot and of a chain being printed in one piece are both mind-boggling.

Photos of each exhibit I have mentioned are included in hopes that they will provide additional clarity. Overall, this tour inspired us as educators to encourage our students to seek internships, education, and entrepreneurial opportunities in advanced manufacturing that will lead to jobs that potentially do not yet exist. The opportunities for innovation with 3D printing are endless and inspiring.

Large titanium 3D prints

Large titanium 3D prints

3D printing single-piece chairs

3D printing single-piece chairs

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