At Sandia National Laboratories, an unusual thing has happened. Researchers 3D printed a massive mold for manufacturing wind turbine blades.
The project is a collaboration with the leading manufacturing laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and TPI Composites that aims to dramatically reduce the time and cost of developing new wind energy technology. Sandia has been in the wind business for four decades, and during that time it has found producing prototypes can be a real drain on time and resources. By 3D printing the 13-meter mold directly from a digital design, Sandia says it saved more than a year in production time.
The Lab's success is just one example of how government agencies and related organizations are increasingly using 3D printing for prototyping and parts production. As other countries embrace the technology at a pace that will soon match our own, 3D printing will become a stronger focus in the public sector.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing because it involves digitally layering materials over-and-over again to produce finished items, has been around for decades. It has been used by the various branches of the U.S. military to construct mission-critical parts on demand. It has also been used at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to create customized prosthetics for veterans. And several Food and Drug Administration centers have been busily qualifying various 3D-printed medical devices for public use, including surgical instruments as well as orthopedic and cranial implants and dental restorations that can be individually made to fit perfectly to a person's body.
Until recently, the public sector’s embrace of 3D printing has been mild at best. This changed a few years ago when new printers were introduced and started producing quality parts exponentially faster at a fraction of the cost. Along the way, the types of materials used in these printers also expanded from solely plastics to include metals and concrete. As manufacturers express more interest in the technology, the palette of material properties continues to expand.
...the U.S. should consider implementing a broader strategic 3D printing program that lays out a vision for the future. It should set specific strategic goals aimed at producing not only replacement parts but full production items the government needs.
We are already seeing examples of this. For instance, a Los Angeles-based startup called Relativity Space says it wants to revolutionize how rockets are made by 3D printing them. Oak Ridge researchers 3D printed a classic Shelby Cobra automobile at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility using the Big Area Additive Manufacturing machine. There are also discussions happening around everything from houses for homeless and vulnerable populations to submarines, surface ships and specialized vehicles that deliver Navy SEALS to dangerous combat areas.