ORNL Manufacturing Demonstration Facility works toward industry efficiency

8/7/2017

The Department of Energy's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory saw approximately 6,200 people representing 700 companies come through its doors in 2016 to learn about the latest and upcoming technology that could send the manufacturing industry into overdrive.

"We've had a little over 18,000 visits over all the time, representing academia, companies, federal entities, NASA, the Navy, Army," MDF director Bill Peter said.

While there are numerous variations of manufacturing techniques at the facility, each innovation works to make sure methods have a practical application in the industry that will decrease production time and cost, while using less energy.

Tool and die industry could change

Tooling, dies and molds are a fundamental part of the manufacturing industry, as they are used to create other parts of the manufacturing process.

"Any manufacturing you need today, you need tooling, dies, molds," Peter said. "It's across the whole board. There are a whole bunch of applications you can start pulling into for that."

A 2012 study conducted by the Congressional Research Service showed that more than one-third of the U.S. tool and die industry moved overseas within a decade.

"That means mom and pop shops that were available folded," Peter said. "You're now in the order of like 70-80 percent of our tooling and dies are imported from overseas. The biggest issue isn't cost. That's particularly why you ended up having this globalization. The big issue is lead time.”

In an automotive scenario, Peter said tooling could cost approximately $200,000,000 for a given model in a given year. Producing the tooling takes months, and manufacturers have to be 100 percent set in the geometry the tooling will create.

"This is partially why, when you look at 3-4 years between body models and changing up any major elements to your car, it's because it takes that long to go through testing, evaluation and being confident in the way you're designing the vehicle," Peter said. "You can imagine if I can start innovating and changing tooling very quickly I could test things very rapidly, innovate and now decrease that overall time to market."

The methods

Large-scale polymer 3D printing: This method of tool manufacturing directly creates a composite part from a computer aided design, or CAD model. The process begins with composite pellets made from carbon fiber and ABS plastic. A local company, TechmerPM, creates the pellets. They can create 1,000-2,000 overnight.

“That's important because we are printing in this machine at about 100 pounds per hour," Peter said. "So from the material development scenario, as well as production of final parts, it's really important for us to be able to have those connections and very quickly be able to go through and produce parts.

"This used to be a metal tool they had to fabricate. You can imagine the weight, the expense associated with it that you're now replacing with a polymer tool."

"Traditionally, pre-fab construction uses multiple wooden molds that are easily broken and restricted to right angles and straight lines," Peter said. "By using 3D printing, we can create molds that are incredibly strong with intricate designs."

 

Composite fabrication: This method looks at high temperature applications to create a strong, but lightweight part that will keep its geometry when heated up to very high temperatures.

The process begins with a 3D printed mold. A sheet or mesh of composite material is infused with resin into the body of the mold and vacuum sealed in a bag.

The mold and the cured part then goes into an autoclave oven that applies heat and pressure.

"Historically they would get a big block of this invar, and they would high speed machine out the geometry they need into this tool," Peter said. "The overall lead time associated with this ... you're up to a year's time frame. We're trying to come up with a scenario where instead of carving out this big block of metal, I can print specifically the geometry I want and take that geometry and that produces the tool for me."

One polymer, polyphenylene sulfide, survived the pressures and temperatures required for this process, Peter said.

Compression molding: While this is a type of composite fabrication, it is a slightly different process that would be used more in the automotive industry because of higher production numbers (thousands to a million parts).

"The idea of, 'How do I reduce cost in vehicles?' A lot of it has to do with how I manufacture those vehicles," Peter said. "If I can get into these methodologies where I lower the overall tooling cost, could I actually lower the overall cost for the car."

While the MDF is in the beginning stages of compression molding, Peter said he is "very optimistic."

"I think this is a golden opportunity when it comes to prototypes and first evaluations," he said. "It's more of a question of how many parts do I produce using this type of manufacturing technology and cost wise, does this fit into that application?"

Compression molding can also be used for steel manufacturing, which will have a longer lifespan but cost more.

Wolf Robotics welding arm: This system is used for large scale steel structures.

It uses low-carbon steel weld wire that runs through a robotic arm. The arm heats the wire and lays it down on a computer aided design path layer by layer.

The welding arm is commercially available.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel by Cortney Roark

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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