At the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility of Oak Ridge National Labs, men such as Suresh Babu, James Earle and Philip Keller are creating the future with small plastic beads and a giant hot glue gun.
Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, has taken off in popularity in recent years as a cheaper, more efficient method of creating everyday items. While this technology has only reached the mainstream market in the past few years, UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have played significant roles behind the scenes.
While the first 3D printer was made in 1984 by Chuck Hall, it has only recently become commercially available. The technique involves first creating a computer design for an object, such as a ball, and then telling a computer to then slowly add layers of plastic from the bottom up until the product is completed. This technology shows immense promise, not only because of the dramatic drop in time required for a part (a model of a car door can be made in as much as a day with a printer, while the same part made of metal would take as much as six months or a year using traditional methods) but also because of the sharp decrease in price.
Here on campus, students Andrew Cousins, Eddy Kiombe and Kyoungho Cho have created their own startup company, Volan Technologies, that is built around 3D printing, and are looking to grow.
"It almost started as a joke, but now we suddenly had all this interest," Cousins, a senior in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, said.
Since putting up fliers at 11 p.m. on Thursday night, Volan Technologies had 11 people apply for a job by 9 a.m. Friday. Volan created their own printer, modifying some of the designs they found online for their own purposes.
Cousins remains positive for his company's future, noting that additive manufacturing has large potential for architectural and engineering students and firms, and that quickly creating a 3D model of a design would streamline much of the process.
"For example an architecture firm might be designing a house for somebody, and they could show somebody a computer generated model, but it would be really expensive for them to hire somebody to make a model of the house," he said. "But all we have to do is upload the CAD file and print it off."
More traditional methods of manufacturing involve creating a mold of an object, and slowly taking away material until one has the desired shape, resulting in much excess material, and more time required.
The metal side of additive manufacturing is much more complex, as it involves the melting of metal powder with an electron beam, while the polymer side involves melting beads before the addition to the material, and then waiting for it to cool on its own.
The development of material made of polymers is more straightforward and rapidly increasing in popularity, but the manufacture of material with metals is farther away. And according to Babu, the mainstream availability for that portion of the technology will likely not be available for another 20 years.
Babu, a recent hire by UT, has been working on 3D printing for the past several years and was selected as the UT-ORNL Governor's Chair for Advanced Manufacturing in July.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which earned international recognition after housing the Manhattan Project that ended World War II, is now involved in a myriad of projects, and is one of the top science labs in the country, as well as a leader in scientific research worldwide.
"There are a lot of applications it (large scale 3D printing) has that we don't know about yet because it's fairly new," James Earle, a senior in Mechanical Engineering at UT, said. "It probably has the biggest future applications of anything we are working on here at the moment... because it can easily be scaled up for applications to hundreds of companies around the world."
As a federally funded workplace, ORNL does not strive to create profits, but rather meaningful technology that serves the public good.
"This is the time when other organizations will work with ORNL to take it (additive manufacturing) to the marketplace," Babu said. "Our main idea about ORNL is not patenting everything... but a matter of generating more economic activity based on the technology developed here."
In March 2012, President Obama founded the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation to help spur growth in the field. Since that time, its headquarters has been established at Youngstown, Ohio, with three more in planning stages around the country.
In addition, there is now the potential to include circuitry in products, meaning that a battery can be built into the machine, and then completely covered over. More traditional methods require circuitry to be installed afterwards, but that may no longer be the case.