Better known as 3D printing, additive manufacturing is the computer-controlled process of building objects layer by layer. Most systems use plastic or other polymers, but ORNL is pioneering the use of metal powders, which can be used to create objects that need to withstand tremendous heat and pressure, like jet engine parts. Printing parts, rather than assembling them from pieces of conventionally machined metal, can save time, money and weight — all prized commodities in the world of manufacturing.
Through partnerships with private companies, ORNL — which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy — is exploring which alloys of steel, aluminum and other metals are most effective for particular applications. The potential for additive manufacturing with metal powders is tremendous, says Brian Thompson, GE Additive’s manager of design and development.
In October, GE Additive signed a five-year cooperative research and development agreement with ORNL to combine the lab’s research capabilities with GE’s experience in developing real-world products.
The agreement is an extension of ORNL’s work with Arcam, a company GE acquired in 2016. Arcam manufactures refrigerator-sized 3D printers that use electron beams to weld together millions of grains of fine-powdered metal, one hair-thin layer at a time, to build things like intricately detailed jet engine parts.
GE’s new Catalyst turboprop engine, for instance, includes a dozen 3D-printed parts that previously would have to have been built out of some 800 pieces, but that can now be printed as a single unit. A fuel nozzle for GE’s LEAP jet engine is now printed as one component instead of 20 pieces welded together. Distilling all those pieces down to one saves on weight, fuel consumption and cost.
But this kind of manufacturing is tremendously complex, with a huge risk of error. Slight changes in heat, the chemistry of the powders, even the age of the equipment can make a significant difference in how the final product turns out. And when you’re dealing with jet engine parts or something as small as a new hip joint, even a fraction-of-a-millimeter mistake can ruin an entire build. “We’re still trying to understand how all the variations in materials and the machines can affect part quality,” says Christine Furstoss, vice president of advanced manufacturing at GE Additive.
For additive manufacturing to flourish, engineers need to be sure their parts will match exacting specifications every time. This challenge will be at the heart of ORNL’s ongoing work with GE Additive. Metal powder 3D printers already in use at GE facilities such as Avio Aero in Italy are equipped with sensors that can collect data from each build. That data can add up to a full terabyte.
Analyzing that much information on traditional computers takes a very long time — but ORNL is also home to Summit, a scientific supercomputer that is ranked as the most powerful on Earth, capable of performing 200 quadrillion calculations per second. (It’s slated to be joined in 2021 by the even mightier Frontier, capable of one quintillion calculations per second.)
“That kind of computing power unlocks some exciting potential. We can analyze the data much, much faster,” says Thompson. That data will be plugged into sophisticated computer models to help researchers understand how the many variables interact, and fine-tune the process. Those findings in turn can be integrated into AI-driven software that can make adjustments to the equipment during a build, in real time.
The goal is to make the 3D-printing process more efficient and dependable — which should in turn motivate more companies to start adopting the process. “The holy grail is being able to just push a button and have the product come out,” says Thompson. That’s still some ways off, though. “This industry is still in its infancy,” says Furstoss. “We don’t have 50 or 60 years of processing knowledge and people studying it, like traditional manufacturing. That’s why relationships like this are so important.”
How can they be better leveraged?
There are lots of ideas out there, but as we argue in a new paper, one of the most effective ways for the labs to increase their economic impact is for them to “go local” and engage more in the advanced industry ecosystems within which they reside.
Of course, this recommendation may sound counterintuitive — or even objectionable — to some. Some will question prioritizing economic development as a top goal for these institutions, given their historical mission in basic research and national security. (Los Alamos and kno, among others, owe their creation to the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs during World War II). At the same time, others will insist that the labs are national institutions with global expertise. They will argue that adding a regional focus will weaken — not strengthen — the labs’ ability to support the national economy.
However, we think that going local (at least to an extent) is both justifiable and advisable. President Obama, former DOE Secretary Chu and DOE Secretary Moniz have all already called on the labs to go beyond their basic science missions to support the national economy through greater technology transfer. Essentially, they argue that the labs can and should be critical drivers of U.S. innovation-based growth. Meanwhile, we would say that one way the labs can maximize the use of their scientific competencies for economic benefit is to engage more in their regions. Arguing for that shift is the move in recent decades from “closed” to “open” models of innovation, with the increased embrace of network- and partnership-oriented processes. Moreover, we would note that the preponderance of economic research shows that the geographic clustering of firms, suppliers, labs and universities generates significant mutual advantage through asset sharing, the sharing of skilled labor pools and knowledge spillovers.
Which is why we contend that regional economic development can be an important adjunct to — and expression of—the lab system’s national scientific mission. By engaging more with relevant local industry clusters the labs can contribute more to local and national economic growth as well as profit themselves. For evidence of that one only has to look at some of the locally oriented partnerships that are already making a difference across the system, whether it be Oak Ridge’s Carbon Fiber Consortium or the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s participation with Colorado’s top universities in the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory. In each case (and there are many other examples) the relevance of a world-class scientific institute has only been augmented through its regional engagements.
To achieve the new orientation, meanwhile, we suggest more than a dozen frequently administrative, mostly low-cost management tweaks. These would prioritize the labs’ economic and tech-transfer activities; facilitate more interaction with small and medium-sized businesses; increase the institutions’ relevance to local clusters; and provide local lab managers greater discretion. In doing so, the adjustments would seek to update not just the rules and incentives under which the labs operate but also their proud but insulated “behind the fence” culture. Nothing will be easy, of course, but we see significant enthusiasm for greater regional engagement not just at the top of DOE but among the system’s talented cadre of lab directors.
The moment, in short, appears promising. The time is right for a world-class set of innovation institutions to embrace the new economics of geography and participate more fully in the innovation systems of their home regions.
Top image: The world’s first 3D-printed car on display at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. Local Motors and Cincinnati Incorporated teamed with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with funding support from the Energy Department’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. Courtesy of Local Motors.
Mark Muro is a Senior Fellow and Director of Policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. Scott Andes is Senior Policy Analyst at the Metropolitan Policy Program. Matthew Stepp is the Executive Director of the Center for Clean Energy Innovation and Senior Policy Analyst, at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.