During CAMX 2015, Rick Spears chatted with a friend at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) exhibit. Spears’ company, TruDesign in Knoxville, Tenn., had collaborated with ORNL on coatings for the retro Shelby Cobra sports car on display, which was designed and produced in just six weeks using additive manufacturing. Displayed nearby the eye-catching car was the 3D-printed mold used to create the hood. Wowed by the Cobra, Spears’ friend suggested they go into the 3D-printed car business. Spears remembers pointing at the Cobra and saying, “That is a million-dollar business.” Then he pointed to the mold and said, “That is a billion-dollar business.”

Spears’ enthusiasm for the potential for tooling produced using additive manufacturing is shared by many in the composites industry. Vlastimil Kunc says that 3D-printed FRP tooling is emerging as “the killer application.” Kunc is team lead for polymer materials research at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL, which has played an integral role in developing industrial 3D-print processes.

Over the past decade, aerospace and other high-tech industries have increasingly turned to 3D-printed tooling for speedy production, cost savings and rapid innovation. With recent advances in large-scale additive manufacturing machines, 3D-printed composite tooling is gaining broader attention.

An Equipment Revolution

For most of its short history, additive manufacturing technology has not been tooling-friendly. For one thing, print capabilities have been small – the first 3D-printed objects were measured in inches, and for a long time, the 3 x 2 x 3-foot Stratasys fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer was the largest on the market. According to Timothy Schniepp, director of composite solutions at Stratasys in Eden Prairie, Minn., it wasn’t until the last decade that customers began using the company’s equipment to 3D print basic molds for jigs and fixtures.

In the last four years, additive manufacturing has taken a quantum leap with the introduction of large-scale industrial 3D printers. In 2014, Cincinnati Inc. collaborated with ORNL on the world’s first large-scale 3D print machine – the Big Area Additive Manufacturing machine (BAAM™). ORNL’s website describes this groundbreaking 3D printer as 500 to 1,000 times faster and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger than previous industrial additive machines. Two years ago, Thermwood, based in Dale, Ind., introduced the second industrial 3D printer, the Large Scale Additive Manufacturing machine (LSAM), which can print 10 feet wide, 5 feet tall and up to 100 feet in length. The scale of these new machines is extremely well-suited to 3D-printed composite tooling.