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3-D Printers Are Changing The Way People Think About Manufacturing


Joe's Big Idea is the occasional series from our colleague Joe Palca looking at where scientists get their ideas and how they act on them. One idea that has revolutionized manufacturing is the 3-D printer. Last year, engineers used a printer to build nearly an entire car from scratch in less than a week. The project was a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and a start-up car company. The printers were developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where Joe went for a visit.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The best way to see the future is to peek over the balcony above the entrance of a manufacturing floor.

LONNIE LOVE: So this is the opening of the manufacturing demonstration facility.

PALCA: Lonnie Love runs the show here. Below us are several large 3-D printers. They're not in boxes. Instead, they're open scaffolds the size of a small room. There's a computer-controlled nozzle hanging in the middle of the room. Hoses lead to the nozzle from a metal box containing plastic pellets.

LOVE: Pellets are fed from the silver dryers over there. You'll hear a hissing sound every few minutes. That's the pellets being fed to an extruder that's taking those pellets, melting them, like, to the consistency of, like, a toothpaste and then squirting it out.

PALCA: The nozzle moves around a platform at the base of the printer, laying down a layer of plastic much like a baker squirts icing on a cake, layer after layer until you get the item you want. The machine we're standing directly above is squirting out a black substance.

LOVE: The reason it's black is that material has a lot of carbon fiber in it. So it's not just plastic. We're making a carbon fiber-reinforced material that's very strong and durable.

PALCA: Down on the shop floor, Love takes me over to one of the cars they've printed. It kind of reminds me of a dune buggy.

LOVE: This is one solid piece from bumper-to-bumper. And what you do is you'll bolt on the suspension on the front, tie in your rack and pinion for your steering, your controls for your accelerator and your brakes. And then in the back, you drop in the motor, your suspension and you got a car.

PALCA: Love says the day may come when you can order a car today and take delivery tomorrow. But the car isn't really what this place is all about.

LOVE: The car gets a lot of the attention. But what we like to tell people is that's the real sizzle. But the meat and potatoes is what's called the tooling industry - the molds, the forms.

PALCA: Molds for airplane panels, car door panels, refrigerator panels - Love says the time and cost for making these molds is rocketing downward. A customer recently asked how long it took Love and his gang to make a mold for an airplane part. Love enjoyed giving him the answer.

LOVE: It took us longer and cost more to ship them to you than it did to make them.

PALCA: Back in his office, Love told me that in a way, these new printers pose an interesting problem.

LOVE: If you can think it, you can create it. So from an engineering standpoint, that's challenging because most engineers think linearly. They think in straight lines, round holes.

PALCA: He says future engineers will need to think more like artists - people who can imagine new shapes in three dimensions.

LOVE: That's one of the big challenges - is finding those talented kids that can bring art and design together.

PALCA: Love thinks he can convince kids that a career in manufacturing is about as cool and cutting-edge as you could possibly ask for. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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