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3D printing: East Tennessee’s next manufacturing boon

How Knoxville and its environs became a hotspot for the future of manufacturing

Local Motors 3D printer
A huge 3D printer in the process of creating a car body for Local Motors, an automaker with a soon-to-open plant in Knoxville, Tennessee
Local Motors

One of the more fantastical aspects of 3D printing, besides the ability to see your digital sketch become a physical object in front of your eyes, is that it can be done almost anywhere. As long as you have a printer, a power hookup, and plenty of raw material, your office, desk, or garage can become a small factory. The technology’s promise of decentralizing production suggests that companies betting on the future of additive manufacturing can spring up anywhere with creativity, capital, and drive.

And while industrial-capability 3D printing is still in development, this cutting-edge technology has already resulted in clusters of like-minded companies and centers of innovation. And one of the most bustling areas for additive manufacturing in the country, and perhaps the world, may just be eastern Tennessee.

Knoxville, Tennessee, first settled in 1786, may seem unlikely as a center for next-generation technology for those unfamiliar with the region. But its emergence is payoff for generations of government investment in research and development. Pioneering research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory—a facility founded in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb—as well as government support of advanced manufacturing, has created a magnet that has lured innovative manufacturing companies.

“Knoxville provides a unique opportunity,” says Kyle Rowe, an advanced materials engineer at Local Motors, a firm developing 3D-printed cars that will open a facility in Knoxville early in 2017. “This is a budding technology corridor, with lots of suppliers and big players. That builds a self-sustaining network. Our supplier is just down the road.”

AMIE system
While the AMIE system created by SOM and Oak Ridge is made to go anywhere, its true legacy may be introducing advancements that reshape home energy usage and production.
The plastic "ribs" that form the frame of the mobile home were made via 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

The innovations here go way beyond the desktop devices that most associate with the technology. In factories in Knoxville and nearby Clinton, companies are printing cars and even homes, living up to the aspirational “Innovation Valley” title applied by local civic boosters.

Oak Ridge researchers worked with architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (who also masterplanned the city of Oak Ridge, back in the ‘40s) to fabricate a 3D-printed mobile home that looks like a 21st century Airstream. Branch Technology, a local firm that prints modular housing recently collaborated with New York-based SHoP Architects to create Flotsam & Jetsam, a sprawling pavilion displayed at Design Miami last weekend that utilizes bamboo.

“I can think of multiple companies off the top of my head who have moved to this area due to a partnership with the lab,” says Jesse Smith, manager of Industrial and Economic Development for ORNL. “The mayor of Knoxville, Madeline Rogero, has really taken a hold of this, and it has become a point of pride in Knoxville.”

The end products are only going to get bigger. Oak Ridge is even developing a next-generation 3D printer with Ingersoll, called the WHAM (Wide and High Additive Manufacturing) machine, that will measure 23’ by 10’ by 46’ feet and have a throughput of 1,000 pounds of material an hour.

The core of the Knoxville’s 3D-printing capabilities come out of the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a cutting-edge research facility with more than 60 metal and polymer printers, as well as a composites laboratory. According to William Peter, who runs the MDF, the lab has spoken with more than 700 entities interested in gaining experience with new technology and collaborating with top scientists.

Ever since the lab decided to extend its focus on additive manufacturing around 2007, it has refined and expanded the possibilities of 3D printing, from simple plastics to carbon fiber and metal. Now, 40 staff members and dozens of students and partners focus on new ways to create high-performance parts and products.

The Olli 3D-printed bus
The Olli 3D-printed bus, which will be manufactured by Local Motors in a Knoxville facility starting next year
Local Motors

By engaging with companies developing systems and end uses for additive manufacturing, the MDF can help prevent technologies from falling into the proverbial “valley of death” on their way to commercialization. Attracting industry partners early helps ideas scale up.

In addition to Oak Ridge, Knoxville is also home to the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, a $250 million public-private partnership launched last year that focuses on funding advances in industrial technology. Part of the Obama Administration’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, the consortium, which works with the Department of Energy and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has provided a boost for the region’s advanced manufacturing base and helped startups get off the ground.

3d Printed Shelby Cobra
Tom Drye, Managing Director of Techmer ES, Lonnie Love, Shelby Cobra 3D print designer and manufacturer at Oak Ridge National Lab, President Barack Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden admire a 3D printed Shelby Cobra, at Techmer PM, a plastic fabrication company, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, in Clinton, Tennesee
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

For Local Motors, one of the more high-profile firms in the area, the decision to move to Knoxville was simple. Techmer, the company’s supplier of plastic pellets for production, is nearby, and the company previously collaborated with Oak Ridge to 3D print the Strati, the first 3D-printed car, and a copy of the classic Shelby Cobra roadster. Those projects led to closer collaboration and mutual development of more widely applicable technology. Now, the Chandler, Arizona-based automaker will open its new microfactory in Knoxville to manufacture the Olli, a 3D-printed, self-driving bus (James Corden gave it a great review).

“The primary reason we opened the microfactory here is the relationship with Oak Ridge,” says Adam Kress, Local Motors’s director of public relations, who expects to employ 50 to 100 people when the factory is fully operational this spring. “It’s going to be a place where the public can see what we’re doing, and there’s growing interest around that in Knoxville.”

Starting next year, the factory will be able to print vehicles on 20’ by 10’ by 10’ machines in just 24 hours and fully assemble road-ready motor vehicles in a few days. Rowe says it’s amazing to be able to go from digital design files to an operational vehicle in just a few days.

The future of this kind of collaborative development could play a big role in revitalizing manufacturing in the country. Rowe, like many others, sees printing processes becoming more precise and traceable, and flexible enough to work with a variety of materials, opening up numerous possibilities. Next March at a trade show in Las Vegas, Oak Ridge staff will show off an excavator printed at the facility with a metal body, polymer composite cab, and a heat exchanger made from aluminum powder.

Aerospace engineering and manufacturing have emerged as huge potential market for additive manufacturing. As the technology gets ever-more precise and practical with new and stronger materials, 3D printing offers the industry the ability to create stronger, more lightweight parts, a massive potential cost savings. This summer, Oak Ridge collaborated with Boeing to print a tool out of thermoplastic that’s as large as an SUV, now considered the largest 3D-printed object ever according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

“We can offer companies a chance to reform or rethink how they design,” says Peter. “And we can bring to bear some pretty big tools they don’t normally have access to.”

Peter points to the tool-and-die industry—which has declined 37 percent in the last decade—as an example of how the 3D printing industry can help resurrect fabrication in the U.S. With additive manufacturing. American companies can create all the molds, fixtures, and jigs used in traditional manufacturing domestically. And while they may not be made anywhere near Oak Ridge, they may have Tennessee innovations to thank.