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The Future of Manufacturing Takes Shape: 3D Printed Car on Display at Manufacturing Summit

September 17, 2014 - 9:50am


Additive manufacturing – often referred to as 3D printing – is a revolutionary way to design and build products.  Until now, 3D printing has been used to make relatively small things such as prosthetic limbs, robots, clothing, prototyping, art, and more. But one Energy Department project, managed by the Advanced Manufacturing Office, has successfully helped make the transition to full-size larger objects like cars, while helping create more sustainable transportation options.

This week in Washington, leaders in science, industry, and manufacturing gathered at the Energy Department’s 2014 American Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Summit, jointly sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness. At the Summit, U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz announced $23 million in funding for 12 cooperative R&D partnership projects that aim to move manufacturing technologies from prototype engineering to the plant floor.  The projects are part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to continue America’s leadership in clean energy innovation, an initiative led by the Energy Department, in collaboration with the private sector, that’s already showing results. Innovative results: like the world’s first 3D-printed vehicle chassis on exhibition at the Summit.

Arizona-based Local Motors, and Cincinnati Incorporated teamed with Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) with the funding support of The Energy Department’s Advanced Manufacturing Office to print the car chassis using a new manufacturing machine called Big Area Additive Manufacturing or BAAM. BAAM can build components 10 times larger and hundreds of times faster than existing techniques and print parts up to eight feet in every dimension, an enormous upgrade in printing capabilities that was critical in making the car chassis.

The additive printing technology used by BAAM typically works in a build-chamber oven by melting a plastic into a computer-specified pattern, one layer at a time. The need for expensive plastic filaments, oven heating equipment, and energy in the form of heat make the process fairly expensive. But, BAAM overcomes these cost and energy barriers in several ways. First, BAAM switches from expensive plastic filaments to pellet-formed plastic that is currently used by the injection molding industry at a tenth of the cost. Second, BAAM prints components in open air, eliminating the need for a heated build chamber. Last but not least, the system also applies advanced process monitoring techniques and control software developed at the MDF.

Earlier in September, representatives from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Cincinnati Incorporated, and Local Motors brought the BAAM to the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. There, live, layer by layer, in front of thousands of people, a real, fully operational, two-person electric car emerged.

Learn more about the Energy Department’s advanced manufacturing work and the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, which aims to boost U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace.