“Throw away all your traditional design and assembly rules for manufacturing,” says Jeff DeGrange, Stratasys vice president of direct digital manufacturing. “New design handbooks will have to be written – all the old approaches just aren’t relevant anymore.”
DeGrange made this comment in the context of discussing the recent partnership between Stratasys and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ORNL, best known for big science run on massive supercomputers such as Jaguar, is also a hotbed of digital manufacturing activity. Its Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) conducts research that gives high priority to additive manufacturing and carbon fiber and composites including carbon reinforced plastics (CRP). Most of the facility’s work is done in collaboration with industry – it has more than 800 industry partnerships and Stratasys is one of the latest to join their ranks.
MDF’s collaboration with Stratasys will focus on the continued development of Fused Deposition Modeling™, invented by Stratasys, as an additive manufacturing technique for mainstream production use. Their work is expected to have a major impact on the manufacturing industry as a whole.
This is not an ivory tower exercise – both the company and the lab are dedicated to the rapid commercialization of their research results. On its web site, MDF states that it “enables research and development from concept to prototype in an open or secure environment for reducing risks and costs, accelerating innovation, optimizing energy efficiency, protecting intellectual property and maximizing investments.” DeGrange is even more direct: “Doing something in a lab is great. But if it never gets commercialized and goes mainstream, what good is it?”
So, how can you take advanced ideas, processes and products from the realm of additive manufacturing and bring them to market? The obvious answer is to focus on what’s needed, and in the world of energy there is a major emphasis on developing high strength materials that can replace metal parts, reducing both weight and expense. Of particular interest are carbon reinforced plastics (CRP) as a replacement for metal components, especially in the aerospace and automotive industries. Weight reduction, notes DeGrange, translates into fuel savings whether the vehicle is running on gasoline, jet fuel or batteries. For example, on a commercial aircraft, a weight reduction of just 500 pounds results in a quarter-million-dollar annual savings in fuel costs.
One of the speed bumps on the way to making the transition from metal to CRP has been cost – for example, carbon materials for use in the aerospace industry were going for $100/ a pound, restricting their use to highly specialized applications. However, today carbon fill materials with very high strength properties can be had for $15 to $20 a pound. When you incorporate the fill material into the engineering thermoplastics used in FDM machines, you wind up with an affordable CRP that can be used for new applications by the old standbys such as aerospace and automotive companies, but also in new industries that are exploring the use of additive manufacturing for the first time.
“The good thing about working with Oak Ridge is that they are in complete agreement with the philosophy of bringing our innovations to market not five years from now, but as soon as possible – in one to two years,” DeGrange says. “And given Stratasys’ global presence, we have the potential to introduce these new ways of manufacturing in 71 countries around the world.”
To achieve its objective of making FDM additive manufacturing technology a mainstream manufacturing process, the joint project is moving ahead on two specific fronts:
Development of in-process inspection to assure part quality and suitability for service. “Rather than going to a clean sheet and new materials, we want to see what we can do with our existing platforms,” DeGrange comments. “By adding closed-loop monitoring capabilities into our current FDM machines, we can keep processes within control limits by making adjustments as needed. This will ensure that our processes are on target right up front and minimize downstream testing.”
Development of carbon fiber reinforced FDM feedstock materials to produce strong, lightweight components. Stratasys is already using high strength ULTEM thermoplastics that are flame, smoke and toxicity resistant. By dosing ULTEM or other materials with chopped carbon fibers and other additives, Stratasys and Oak Ridge will be developing CRPs that can be run on current FDM machines using their existing controls.
In the press release announcing the partnership, DeGrange had this to say: “The additive process can reduce the energy impact of manufacturing. It reduces material consumption, waste streams, large investments into metal tooling, warehouse costs and transportation costs. You don’t have to bring in material just to machine 75 percent of it away as with traditional manufacturing. Additive manufacturing deposits material only where it’s needed to grow a part.”
The partnership dovetails nicely with the DOE’s stated goal of reducing the energy usage of U.S. industry, commercializing new products more quickly, and revitalizing the global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing.
Says Dr. Lonnie Love, Distinguished Research Scientist and Group Leader for Automation, Robotics and Manufacturing at ORNL, “The research and development done at the MDF allows us to explore innovative ideas in next-generation materials and manufacturing technologies to help U.S. industry. The project with Stratasys will lead to commercialization of new products that will ultimately make U.S. manufacturing more competitive and energy efficient.”