By David Goddard. Photography by Dustin Brown.
The year is 1502. Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo is chipping away at a massive slab of marble, carving and shaping what will eventually become the iconic statue of David. In one respect, he is creating a masterpiece for the ages. But as he whittles away millions of tiny pieces fall to the ground, making a gigantic pile of useless rubble.
This highly inefficient production process has been around since the Bronze Age.
“We end up with a lot of waste, paying for a lot of material that isn’t needed,” said Sudarsanam Suresh Babu, the UT–Oak Ridge National Laboratory Governor’s Chair for Advanced Manufacturing.
That’s all about to change. Welcome to the new age of additive manufacturing—more commonly known as 3D printing. “Now we are able to build things using only the exact amount of material we need,” he said.
How does it work? These highly modified printers use metallic powders, carbon fibers, or plastic pellets instead of ink to produce tangible objects, not just words or images on a page.
With just a set of geometric dimensions, it is possible to create an object with computer-aided design software or a scanner. “Our machine maps the layers of an object. That information is then fed to the printer, which assembles a replica of that object—layer by layer—using only the materials needed to make it,” Babu explained.
Today’s printers can be used to make almost anything imaginable, from prosthetic limbs to car parts to doorknobs. And yes, even statues. “Some students used one of the processes to make a Statue of Liberty,” he said. “It looked perfect, too,” even though the reproduction wasn’t quite the same scale as the original monument.
By using mere fractions of the material required in the past, the payoff is threefold, according to Babu. “When you reduce materials, you save money. When you reduce processing steps, you save energy. When you do both of those things, you’re helping yourself and the environment at the same time.”
Driving the Future
Although 3D printing technology has been around since the mid-1980s, the past five years have seen its capabilities take some giant leaps forward. Gone are the days when researchers got excited about replicating palm-sized objects. They now have their sights set on some more substantial things—like cars.
Babu is a technical team member at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF), where a massive 3D printer has been modified to produce a car frame in one go.
In 2007, a company called Local Motors set out to produce the world’s first drivable vehicles created with additive manufacturing technology. In 2014, in collaboration with MDF and researchers from UT and ORNL, an experimental version of the Strati 3D was printed on site at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago.
The size of the printer and the investment involved highlight the fruitful relationship that UT and ORNL share.
“There is a lot of cost involved with doing projects like this, like some of the others we are working on that ORNL has invested in,” Babu said. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of large-scale design involved, a lot of testing, and a lot of data evaluation. That brainpower is what UT brings to the table.”
Another project UT researchers are working on involves giving limb functionality back to those who have faced amputation. Similar to the technology featured in the popular 1970s science fiction TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, Babu and his team are investigating the ability to print replacement body parts such as hands, limbs, and joints.
“Are they reliable? How long will they last? How much do they cost? Those are some of the things we are still trying to figure out,” Babu said.
In addition to improving the functionality of the devices, they hope to make them as human as possible. “We’re working on installing sensors and hardware to make them more usable,” he said. “We print them out with areas for hardware and electronics to pass through so they can be customized as needed.”
Unlocking the Potential
Even though parts for cars, airplanes, or even humans can already be printed, Babu believes we are only scratching the surface of what additive manufacturing can do. Future developments in the field will be limited only by the amount of time and money being invested.
“We’re in a stage where things are moving from the theoretical to the practical, but there’s still a lot of testing and studying to be done,” Babu said. “One of our big things right now is looking at different ways of understanding the properties of what we use.”
“For instance, instead of aligning the printed layers the same direction, will it make it stronger if we alternate directions, or is there a certain pattern that would make the best way to go about printing things?”
Those questions and more will undoubtedly be addressed by UT’s involvement in the $140 million American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The White House–backed initiative aims to provide a way for companies, labs, and universities to tackle some of the technological issues surrounding advanced manufacturing.
With new developments under discussion, there is no telling what the next breakthrough will be. Things are progressing so rapidly that even experts like Babu have a hard time believing the advancements made in the past two decades. Imagine what Michelangelo would think.