3D printing gets cooler, cheaper, faster at ORNL

Three-dimensional printing is another big step closer to becoming an everyday thing, with the unveiling of the new Reactive Additive Manufacturing 3D printer, or RAM, at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility on Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Hardin Valley Campus.

The RAM is the world’s first large-scale reactive polymer printer to be ready as a commercial product, said Vlastimil Kunc, group leader for polymer materials development at MDF. Unlike other 3D printers, it can run continuously because it has multiple print beds; one job can be prepared or removed while another is running, he said.

“That really lowers the cost of large-scale additive manufacturing,” Kunc said.

The material for printing doesn’t need to be heated, which makes it energy efficient — and also faster, since other 3D-printed items can deform when laid down at high temperatures, he said.

“We don’t have that problem with this printer,” Kunc said. The machine meets strict U.S. safety regulations and so can be sold almost anywhere, he said.

3D-printed objects aren’t necessarily the same strength in all directions, since layers of thermoplastic don’t chemically bond together, Kunc said. The thermoset material RAM uses, however, does bond between layers, increasing its products’ strength.

The material comes in commercial-scale 55-gallon drums. The machine can run for 35 hours continuously — but even if printing stops overnight, the material will still bond when the work restarts, Kunc said. That’s a huge change from older processes, which must scrap half-finished products if interrupted, he said.

Speed and scale

The military, aerospace manufacturers, and marine and automotive industries are all interested in such machines, as are tub and shower makers, said Mike Kastura, senior product and marketing manager for RAM maker Magnum Venus Products. Really, any business in which traditional thermoplastics can’t meet standards for strength, pressure or heat tolerance, he said.

The current model can print objects up to 16 feet by 8 feet by 3.5 feet; and that’s limited only by the size of the machine itself, not the raw material being used, Kastura said.

So when can manufacturing companies hope to buy a RAM of their own?

“Now. It’s ready now,” Kastura said. It’s taken two years to build the machine and fine-tune the thermoset polymers it uses, but commercial models can be ordered today, he said.

It would take a few months to build, but that can occur while sale and specification discussions are underway, Kastura said.

Prices are comparable to other thermoplastic 3D printers of similar size, he said.

Time and team

MVP began working with ORNL in September 2014, and the company moved its headquarters to East Tennessee in June 2016, said Moe Khaleel, ORNL associate laboratory director for energy and environmental sciences. Polynt, maker of the thermoset material RAM uses, joined the project in October 2017, he said.

Polynt’s PRD-1520 material allows for large-scale 3D printing that’s far more efficient than before, opening “new terrain” for manufacturers and researchers alike, Khaleel said.

He spoke to about three dozen industry representatives, staff from MVP and Polynt, and ORNL personnel at the gathering.

The Manufacturing Demonstration Facility is the first Department of Energy-designated user facility for research on additive manufacturing, MDF Director Bill Peter said. It’s sponsored by DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.

The company makes the polymer building blocks for 3D printing, and PRD-1520 is a new one: its layers chemically bond, making it hold together better; and printing doesn’t have to be continuous, said Steve Voeks, the company’s research and development manager for the Americas.

He praised researchers and ORNL for the speed with which they’ve developed the process.

“Three years ago this was a dream, and now it’s reality,” Voeks said.

MVP started 70 years ago as a distributor of products like pumps and spray guns, and got into manufacturing because no one serviced its merchandise, said President and CEO Bob Vanderhoff. From there MVP branched into many fields; and RAM, efficiently making products with improved thermal properties, has brought the company into contact with even more industries, he said.

Site and sync

Kunc led a tour of the MVP; most of the 3D printing equipment is provided by various companies, there to find improvements or new uses, he said. Optical giant Zeiss, for example, put in $4 million of equipment for experiments in powder printing, Kunc said.

The RAM is housed in an adjacent building, the Grid Research, Integration Deployment Center and Battery Manufacturing Facility.

In both buildings researchers with industry in developing 3D printers, materials used for printing, and applications for their discoveries. Even experts in each field can have difficulties if they don’t control the other aspects as well, Kunc said.

“We really try and do all three of those things at the same time,” he said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

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Published September 20, 2019