I recently visited the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville,TN. And trust me, this is a very impressive place that is pushing the boundaries of manufacturing technology, informed by advanced science.

Responding to a need for alternative routes to manufacturing goods, on a large scale, the Department of Energy established this facility. Thanks to innovative partnerships with industry, from initiation, project value has grown to more than $30 million annually including industry cost share. Much of the equipment is placed in the facility by industry to gain operating experience and commercial exposure.

Visit to the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Prof. Suresh Babu, who holds one of the very prestigious Governor's at University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and who is heavily involved in the MDF, explained to me that the centre had been designed as a hub for scientists, engineers from local companies, but also interns from local community colleges who are brought in to develop unique skills that will make them part of the workforce needed in the very near future.

Visit to the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Visit to the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

MDF has a very strong focus on additive manufacturing - new processes whereby parts are not cut out from larger bulky items or cast in a mound but progressively build by depositing layer after layer polymers, composites or a variety of metals. This new route to manufacturing enables new geometries to be conceived  and alleviates a number of constraints in the design of parts for the automotive, aerospace or even housing industries. The MDF was all over the news recently for having produced the first 3D printed car which you can see in the photo.

The MDF also has a strong activity in robotics and I was presented with some almost intriguing machines with a couple of arms standing up it of a large cylinder - far from R2D2! But this robot has complete buoyancy and as Prof. Baby explained to me that considering the intricacies of the parts designed for the arms of this robot, there is no way this robot could have been build using traditional manufacturing techniques. The facility also opens its doors to local school kids, who can come in and work as teams to design new robots, using cutting edge technology and somehow pushing the boundaries of what robots can do.

Visit to the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

There are many different techniques to get to this point, and most are available at MDF, from the table-top 3D printer where a filament of plastic is locally melted on top of the existing solid part from the layer on underneath, to mid-size machines where metal powder is locally injected and melted using electrons of laser (see our recent webinar on the topic here), or large scale machines that are used to prototype parts for planes. I was introduced to Dr. Amy Elliott (@Amytheengineer), who works on a new technique which makes use of a methodology that does not involve laser or electron beams but relatively standard adhesives which makes the process simpler and cheaper and enables to create structure from a broad variety of metals and other materials that are inaccessible to most other techniques.

Additive manufacturing is seen by many as a disruptive technology, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to fully grasp the problems and optimise the processes to make sure that parts are safe to be used. In that sense it is burgeoning, but it's potential is evident.

From a materials science perspective, the problems have been traditionally faced with other manufacturing techniques : how to optimise the solidification process to  control the microstructure, how to limit residual stress that will affect the propensity of parts to crack etc.

Much progress has been achieved at the facility because of the synergies created between scientists and engineers from a breadth of backgrounds and by fostering the differences in culture and expertise. To me, the MDF epitomises modern research: multidisciplinary, multidimensional, using science to drive technology that will enable solving real problems and translate into new products, new jobs etc.