Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (ORNL – MDF) partnered with Boeing and seven industrial partners to 3D print and test the first 100 percent digitally manufactured tools in an industrial autoclave setting.

According to 3D printing news website 3ders, ORNL 3D printed four thermoplastic molds made from two newly-developed, high-temperature materials. The molds were then inserted into Boeing’s autoclave – a pressure chamber typically used to make aerospace-grade composite parts. Despite being subjected to temperatures as high as 350 F and pressures of 90psi, the 3D printed thermoplastic parts survived.

ORNL says this achievement is significant because digital manufacturing could help lower manufacturing costs by accelerating production times. For this specific testing, each tool was printed and machined in a matter of hours, whereas a mold produced with conventional techniques has an average lead time of 14 weeks.

The initial collaboration between ORNL’s MDF, Boeing, and other industry partners began in November 2015, when they successfully tested six new 3D printing materials on the CAMX-award-winning Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) large-format 3D printer, which was developed in by ORNL and Cincinnati Incorporated.

In March 2016, two of those six materials were chosen for 3D printing the four high-temperature tools. Of these, two were machined and uncoated, while the other two were “coated and unmanned using experimental coating systems” developed by a Knoxville-based company. The molds were taken to Boeing’s St. Louis testing facility a month later. The successful testing resulted in high-quality composite parts that can be used in primary aircraft structures. Additionally, the tools can be reused to produce replicas of parts, which results in saved time and energy.

ORNL’s 3D printing research has also extended into the realm of Polymer Additive Manufacturing (PAM), which allows for complex, lightweight, and low-cost components to be built for a range of industries, from automotive and aerospace, to rapid tooling.