Oak Ridge National Laboratories is working with Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) and at least one other commercial partner (leading 3-D printing company Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) is likely involved, as I'll discuss) to scale up 3-D printing to produce parts up to 60 to 100 feet in size for the aerospace and other industries, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology. The ultimate goal is to be able to print structures such as the wings of a large unmanned aircraft.
ORNL is the largest science and energy national lab in the U.S. Department of Energy's system, and frequently teams with commercial partners. The lab has a premier materials science program, and it's the material that is key to scaling up 3-D printing for industrial uses.
Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics: the key to "broad area" 3-D printing
A primary challenge with 3-D printing is that large printed parts can warp because areas with different thicknesses cool at different rates. Remember, 3-D printing involves heating the material to be printed using a laser, electron beam, or other method and building up a component layer by layer.
So simply building 3-D printers with larger build boxes than those currently on the market is not solution enough in order to produce large, load-bearing components. The materials side of the equation needs to be worked out first, and Oak Ridge National Lab has made excellent progress in this area.
The lab has developed a way to produce carbon fibers less than 500 nanometers in diameter. These fibers are small enough that they can be infused into the thermoplastic raw material. Conventional chopped carbon fibers are 5 to 7 micrometers, which is too thick to fit into the 0.25-inch diameter thermoplastic filament that is fed into fused deposition modeling machines. (Fused deposition modeling is one of Stratasys' two primary 3-D printing technologies.)
Adding 13% by volume of chopped carbon fiber to the thermoplastic raw material increases its strength by a factor of two and stiffness by a factor of four, and prevents parts from warping as they cool, according to Dr. Lonnie Love, group leader for automation, robotics and manufacturing at ORNL. This method can reportedly produce material strength on par with 600-series aluminum.
While 6000-series aluminum -- which is aluminum alloyed with magnesium and silicon -- is relatively strong and commonly used in manufacturing because it is easy to machine, it's not as strong as the 7000-series, which is used in aerospace applications.
The commercial players: Stratasys (likely) and Lockheed Martin
The original equipment manufacturer working with ORNL and Lockheed Martin to build a prototype 3-D printer that can print gigantic carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic parts wasn't named in the Aviation Week article.
It's a near-certainty, in my opinion, that Stratasys is involved in this project, as Stratasys announced a partnership with ORNL in June 2012 to develop FDM reinforced plastics. That said, Stratasys isn't necessarily the OEM that is building the machine described by Aviation Week:
"As a next step, ORNL is working with an equipment supplier to build the prototype of a single machine that will print plastic parts, machine them to final shape and wrap them in reinforcing carbon-fiber tows to produce large structural components."
If you're following the 3-D printing space, it might not surprise you that Lockheed Martin is involved in this project. Aerospace companies are gun-ho about 3-D printing technology, and are quickly embracing it. This is largely due to cost, weight, and design factors. Key aerospace materials are very pricey. So, aerospace companies are keen to embrace methods that can save material costs. Weight is of critical concern for aerospace components, as small reductions in weight lead to large savings in fuel costs. Lastly, 3-D printing allows for some parts to be designed and constructed in a manner that can't be achieved using traditional manufacturing techniques.
Foolish final thoughts
A 3-D printer that can build huge load-bearing parts, such as the wing of an unmanned aircraft, will be a game-changer for the manufacturing industry. The equipment manufacturer that first successfully introduces such a 3-D printer to the market should do tremendously well. Additionally, there will be ripple effects throughout the entire supply chain.
I'll be following this project and will keep investors up to date.