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3D printers offer unlimited possibilities

10:35 PM, May 15, 2013   |    comments
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3D printers offer unlimited possibilities

(WBIR- Oak Ridge) A new type of technology offers unlimited possibilities and Oak Ridge scientists are at the forefront of the research. Engineers believe 3D printers will change the world of manufacturing.

"It is a game changer. You can design and build things you could never do before," said Lonnie Love, an ORNL engineer. He and his colleagues are working to advance the technology further.

"There are two areas that we're really focusing on: One is working with the equipment providers to develop new materials and take the technology from prototyping to real manufacturing, where you have a lot of quality control. Two, we're working with a lot of companies that are interested in the technology and allowing them to come here, work with us modifying the design, and testing the parts."

The process starts with products designed on specialized software. Next, the creator must choose a material from which the product will be made. In the raw, that material will be powder-fine, then welded into the desired product.

"This is the real paradigm shift: We can make things that are very, very light," Love explained. "By making it lighter, it uses less material and less energy, so it's actually less expensive."

The large printers used by ORNL typically cost several hundred thousand dollars, or more. However, some companies have designed smaller versions that sell for a few hundred dollars. Love said many people are interested in buying a 3D printer for themselves.

"I would say 50-100 people in Knoxville have these, it's called the 'Maker Community,'" he said, adding that Hardin Valley High School also has smaller 3D printers. His own teenage sons enjoy experimenting with the printer, and have created small products, like key-chains, to sell to friends.

"Everybody can be a part of manufacturing business. If I have one of these systems in my house and I'm connected to the internet, somebody can send me a file and I can make their part overnight. They may sell it for 10 dollars, they'll pay me five dollars, it will take 30 cents of material."

With that level of accessibility now a reality, many others around the country with interest in the technology have been building their own designs.

One Texas company, Defense Distributed, made headlines recently for creating a software design to manufacture gun parts with a 3D printer. The product drew hundreds of thousands of downloads, until the Department of Defense asked the company to take it offline.

Love said it is always hard to predict what people will do with technology, and how those creations will be perceived. However, he expects the "positives" to far outweigh the "negatives" in 3D printing.

Already, the technology is behind designing new medical devices, transportation parts, and countless other projects.

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