How Oak Ridge National Laboratory Boosted Manufacturing in the United States


The science of manufacturing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has performed well in 2020, despite and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was one of the posts from Craig Blue, ORNL’s Advanced Manufacturing Program Director and Founding Director of the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF), who recently told friends at ORNL that the lab had issued 40 press releases on ORNL’s manufacturing research alone in 2020.

Craig Blue

The interaction between ORNL researchers and Peter Tsai, a retired University of Tennessee professor who invented and patented the electrostatically charged filter media in N95 respirators, has attracted national attention. These highly protective masks were rare for U.S. hospital staff treating a growing number of patients struggling to survive COVID-19. ORNL staff and Tsai, who has come out of retirement, have collaborated to increase production of the masks, make them reusable, and work with industry to mass-produce them, creating jobs and saving lives.

MDF, the largest advanced manufacturing research center in the U.S. Department of Energy, is known for its co-development and use with industry in 3D printing technologies, or additive manufacturing machines (AM ), to demonstrate the making of objects of all sizes and complex shapes. . The technologies use a variety of materials, from carbon polymers and composites to metal alloys.

Now in its 10th year, MDF is, according to Blue, “No. 1 in research on additive manufacturing in the country. The medical technology, aerospace, and automotive industries are leading the implementation of additive manufacturing in the United States.

Zeiss company staff are integrated into the manufacturing demonstration facility, evaluating the quality of 3D printed objects.

AM, or 3D printing, is a process that creates a physical object from a digital model file. The AM machine adds layer upon layer of material to build a complete object such as a car frame, engine part, or turbine blade mold. Additive manufacturing is the opposite of traditional “subtractive” processes whereby material is removed (or subtracted) from a larger block to create the final object. Today’s 3D printers give the producer more control, more flexibility and greater speed in making a suddenly needed mold or part.

“In 2013, we developed a new polymer that could be 3D printed,” said Blue. “Then we co-developed two of the largest polymer printers in the world. We launched the large-scale polymer additive manufacturing industry.”

This work benefited the local economy. For example, Clinton’s Techmer PM commercialized materials for polymeric AM on a large scale and opened a new production line dedicated to the production of polymer powders for 3D printing.

Over the years, MDF has “printed” a robotic hand, five cars, molds for construction parts, a submersible boat for the Navy, a cutting tool for the world record-breaking Boeing 777 aircraft. Guinness in 2016 as the largest 3D printed tool. , and a nose cone with ablative carbon composite material for NASA that will be sent to the International Space Station later this year. In addition, 3D printed stainless steel fuel assembly parts from ORNL will be inserted into the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry nuclear power plant during a refueling shutdown in 2021.

3D printing machines in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory's new manufacturing demonstration facility.

In 2020, MDF staff showed they can develop a high temperature single crystal turbine blade for fossil, hydro and wind power systems.

“In 2020, we were the first to demonstrate control of 3D microstructures,” said Blue.

MDF incorporates staff from Zeiss, a Minnesota company determined to become the best by applying their expertise in precision inspection and metrology to verify that 3D printed parts are absolutely reliable. Zeiss brought $ 8 million worth of equipment to MDF to test its inspection techniques.

Help the industry

One of ORNL’s major technical achievements for MDF has been the recent development of Peregrine, a software using artificial intelligence to assess in real time the quality of parts produced by 3D printing without the need for testing equipment. costly characterization. The software is used to monitor the addition of layers of molten polymer powders fused by laser or electron beams to construct a desired object. If Peregrine detects an anomaly in a layer that could degrade the properties of the part, it alerts the operator so that adjustments can be made. Defects include swelling, debris, spatter and soot.

Peregrine software is copyrighted and licensed to four companies: GE Additive, Raytheon Technologies, Cummins, and Blue Origin (owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos).

“GE is the world’s largest manufacturer of additives,” said Blue. “GE has invested up to $ 4 billion in AM, but sees the need to work with MDF to get a fundamental understanding of the process.

He added that ORNL has a major deal with GE to manufacture geothermal energy systems.

Since MDF’s inception in 2012, it has been involved in over 50 academic collaborations and over 200 Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) with industry, which are partially funded by the DOE (50% of over 100 Advanced MDF manufacturing systems are provided by industry through CRADA).

“MDF has had a billion dollar impact on US industry,” Blue said, explaining that once industrial partners completed their development work at MDF, they invested a total of $ 1 billion. dollars in additive manufacturing systems.

“This is a 20 to 1 return on investment of DOE funds in CRADAs at MDF,” he added.

In 2019, MDF researchers working with Gate Precast and PCI created the first 3D molds for the white precast concrete facade of a 42-story residential and commercial tower being built in Brooklyn on the waterfront site of the former Domino sugar factory. The facade evokes the shape of a sugar crystal.

The molds, produced on ORNL’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine, are made of thermoplastic blended with chopped carbon fibers. Unlike conventional wooden molds, the 3D printed molds were durable enough to pour at least 200 concrete parts, a key requirement to meet the project schedule. Most of the molds were then manufactured by Additive Engineering Solutions (AES) of Akron, Ohio, which allowed it to increase its workforce as it experienced annual revenue growth of 110%.

Volunteer Aerospace is a local startup that grew out of work at MDF, which hired seven people, acquired five add-on systems, and manufactured critical and qualified components in less than three years.

MDF co-developed with MVP a large thermosetting printer and as a result MVP moved to Knoxville. (Thermosetting printers work with synthetic materials that permanently harden when heated, while thermoplastic printers, also MDF, use synthetic materials that become plastic on heating and harden on cooling.)

By training some 1,300 people with Boeing, the Navy and other organizations, MDF is tackling the US machine tool crisis.

“The United States has lost 30 to 40 percent of its tool and die making business,” Blue said.

MDF staff have demonstrated that 3D printing can be used to make machine tools and dies quickly.

“With the exception of 2020, MDF received an average of 7,000 visits from 1,100 companies per year,” Blue said.

MDF staff have also trained 700 students through 1,000 internships since 2012 and have worked with local high school students involved in FIRST Robotics team competitions.

In 2018, MDF staff moved from its original 42,000 square foot building to a 110,000 square foot building; both buildings are located near the ORNL National Transportation Research Center on Hardin Valley Road in Knox County. In addition, ORNL has established the new Manufacturing Science Division, which includes MDF and carbon fiber technology facility. CFTF seeks to reduce the cost of producing carbon fiber for potential use in making vehicles that are lighter and more energy efficient. The division has 140 people.

Fight COVID-19 with advanced manufacturing

Together with former Professor Tsai at the University of Tennessee, the CFTF responded to the massive shortage of N95 masks in US hospitals in early 2020. Tsai helped the CFTF convert its machines from carbon fiber production from a precursor to the manufacture of filter cloth. The process involved melt blowing a polymer resin at a high air speed to create randomly deposited microfibers, forming a sheet of material.

Tsai helped CFTF incorporate a charging system invented by ORNL into the fusion blowing line at CFTF. In addition to doing mechanical filtering, the N95 material has stationary electrical charges that attract and trap over 95% of the submicron fluid droplets found in the coronavirus.

“Then we worked with Cummins in Middle Tennessee to convert two of their meltblown lines to make diesel engine filter media so they could mass produce N95 filter material,” Blue said. “Within three months, we were able to convince a Florida company to manufacture masks using N95 filter media produced by Cummins. They made and sold three million masks a day. “

MDF used 3D printing to make metal molds that Tennessee medical manufacturer DeRoyal used to make millions of face shields. MDF molds have been used to mass produce plastic tubes containing swabs and saline in kits needed to determine whether people test positive for COVID-19.

In a press release, Lonnie Love, Senior Scientist for ORNL’s COVID Advanced Manufacturing Initiatives, said, “We do the scientific research, overcome challenges, and then provide industry with a turnkey solution that allows them to take our tools and quickly manufacture equipment to meet American demand.

Blue concluded, “We have helped create 1,500 new jobs to produce the medical supplies needed to fight COVID-19. “

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