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Automotive & Transportation

A 3-D Printed Excavator Could Raise the Bar for Large-Scale Metal Printing

07 October 2016

Researchers, industry partners and university students at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee are designing and producing the world’s first 3-D-printed excavator, expected to be complete within nine months.

Printed on machines at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL, and funded by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy— Advanced Manufacturing Office, the vehicle will include a cab where the operator sits; a large, hydraulically articulated arm; and a heat exchanger.

The cab of the excavator is 3-D printed using carbon fiber-reinforced ABS plastic. Image credit: ORNL The cab of the excavator is 3-D printed using carbon fiber-reinforced ABS plastic. Image credit: ORNL The cab design was created by a student engineering team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who won a design competition. The team then visited the MDF to watch the cab being printed. The system—the Big Area Additive Manufacturing Machine—is the same system that printed a replica Shelby Cobra sports car using carbon fiber-reinforced acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic.

The team of engineering students who designed the cab were then invited to watch it take shape at ORNL. Image credit: ORNL The team of engineering students who designed the cab were then invited to watch it take shape at ORNL. Image credit: ORNL As a whole, the project will help the researchers explore the feasibility of printing with low-cost metal alloys like steel and aluminum. This could, potentially, introduce new industrial applications for additive manufacturing.

The excavator’s stick will be fabricated using ORNL’s newly installed Wolf System, a machine that uses a freeform technique to print large-scale metal components. The Concept Laser printing machine will produce the heat exchanger through a powder-bed-based laser melting process. While creating these components, the team will further develop processes to improve material performance and printability, while demonstrating how the materials can adapt to reduce residual stress and distortion, according to a press release issued by ORNL.

Lonnie Love, who leads the 3-D-printed excavator project with ORNL’s Manufacturing Systems Research group, said he expects the excavator to be fully printed, assembled and ready to be unveiled to the public within nine months.

The final product, known as Project AME (Additive Manufactured Excavator) will be on display at IFPE and CONEXPO-CON/AGG in Las Vegas in March 2017. Additionally ORNL revealed plans to 3-D-print another excavator cab during a live demonstration at the event.

While 3-D-printing excavators and other construction vehicles may not become common practice among manufacturers, using additive manufacturing to print low-volume, high-complexity components for machines could help reduce production time and overall cost.



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