Composites manufacturing is making large-scale advances.

Imagine going to a car dealership and ordering a new vehicle custom-made to your specifications, but you don’t wait a month or more for delivery. Instead, you pick up the car very next day. Thanks to advances in 3-D printed composites, that scenario is close to reality. Using technology developed by the Manufacturing Systems Research Group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), at least one entrepreneur is preparing to launch a car-printing micro-factory and sales outlet.

3-D printing isn’t the only recent breakthrough in composites manufacturing. Industry, universities, government agencies and others throughout the world are exploring improved methods of composite fabrication. Whether they’re working on additive manufacturing, automated production, more precise machining or new methods of molding, the goal is to make composites manufacturing faster, more efficient and cost-effective.

Bigger and Better

ORNL researchers have been working on additive manufacturing for more than 20 years, but until five years ago the projects were all small-scale. “Almost all 3-D printers are in an oven, since they have to keep parts close to the glass transition temperature for plastics. Even for metal, you have to keep the parts really hot while you’re growing them,” says Lonnie Love, corporate fellow and group leader at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL. Using ovens limited project size and required a lot of energy.

Then the researchers realized that carbon fiber could solve some of the technology’s fundamental problems. “When you put in carbon fiber, it not only increases the strength and stiffness, it also increases thermal conductivity and decreases the co-efficient of thermal expansion such that you no longer need the oven,” Love says. That eliminated all size constraints.

Using carbon fiber, a gantry system and additive manufacturing, ORNL successfully partnered with Lockheed Martin to print big molds for sheet metal forming and composite tooling. “We could make something in a day for thousands of dollars that typically would take months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Love. BAAM (Big Area Additive Manufacturing) became a game-changer.

In 2014, ORNL teamed with Cincinnati Inc., a build-to-order machine tool manufacturer, to adapt its laser cutting machine to additive manufacturing. They partnered with car manufacturer Local Motors and printed a composite car during the International Manufacturing Technology Show in September 2014. Cincinnati Inc. has since sold several of its additive printing systems to manufacturers in various industries, and Local Motors plans to sell 3-D printed cars this year at its microfactory across the street from the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility in Knoxville, Tenn.