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AM Community Conversation with Amy Elliott, Oakridge National Laboratory


Welcome back to SME’s AM Influencer Series. I’d like to welcome our guest Dr. Amy Elliott, 3D printing scientist at Oakridge National Laboratory, where scientists and engineers develop research and technological solutions that strengthens the nation’s leadership in key areas of science to increase the availability of clean, abundant energy, restore and protect the environment, and contribute to national security. 

Amy has a co-op engineer experience at NASA.  You might recognize Dr. Elliott as a contestant on the “Big Brain Theory”, Discovery Channel, on-camera science personality on the Science Channel’s, “Outrageous Acts of Science”, American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN ambassador, who has published books on AM, photopolymers, and nanocomposites. 

What was your first experience with additive manufacturing?

I was on my way to grad school, I was doing my grad school interviews, and up until then I had been interested in robotics and was trying to get into a lab doing robotics.  It was super competitive; I was going to have to do a TA and extra work on top of doing my research project.  Anyway, this technology called additive manufacturing was one of the other projects I could have chosen from, and I was like, what is that that sounds very obscure.  Then I looked into it, and I went, oh!  This is a robot that makes me something.  That was my introduction to it and of course back then when I was in grad school it was not popular.  3D printing was what nerds did in their basements, right?  My husband asked, what are you doing?  You’ll never find a job in this.  This is so obscure.  Well, I said this seems pretty cool, I’ll stick with it, and it ended up being a really great decision. 

What is the impact of AM on the manufacturing industry as a whole?

There’s a lot of people in additive who are so excited about it, and they think, naively, this is going to take over everything, right?  The reality is, it’s just another tool in the toolbox.   We’re still going to need machining, we’re still going to need casting, we’re still going to need all these other manufacturing processes.  Where additive comes in, is it’s going to enhance those technologies.  Maybe we are going to be making shapes that then get machined or making patterns, 3D printing patterns for casting.  It’s just going to augment these existing manufacturing technologies and I think push our manufacturing capabilities so much further. 

What advice do you have for manufacturers looking to implement or adopt AM?

Yeah, absolutely.  I would consider half of my job education, so there are a lot of resources out there.  Whether it is the Department of Energy that do a lot of education in additive manufacturing, a lot of it’s on the proper usage of additive.  You can reach out to people like us but do your homework and if there is a technology you think is promising, reach out to the company, the company that has that technology.  I am sure they would be more than happy to educate you, consult you.  That’s really the best thing, is to get educated.  There is so much to learn and there are so many misconceptions out there.  Some hard lessons to learn when we actually dive into the weeds, it’s not this magical print anything you want to process. 

You can’t hit one button, and everything happens the way you want?

Right?  That would be awesome.  The reality is sometimes it does not make sense, at all, to 3D print what you’re doing, to 3D print your parts.  Do your homework, there are a lot of resources out there, like I said the companies and the Department of Energy have lots of educational opportunities. 

How has your experience been with the SME event, RAPID + TCT?

Boy, is that a fun conference.  I think it is one of the biggest ones.  Whenever I go to RAPID + TCT, it’s always overwhelming, there’s always way more there than you can really soak in.  I always make so many contacts, so many new avenues for my research, new ideas, and I learn so much.  It is really one of the best ones out there, I think. 

What role do you see SME playing in the additive manufacturing space?

I think SME is doing a great job working on these types of events, getting people together, connecting those dots.  People who need education, those who can educate, those who have specific needs, that “match maker” is a great role for SME.  Just getting everybody together and pushing the technology forward through these partnerships and these connections. 

How do you define the additive manufacturing community?

Oh, my goodness, it is a broad community, isn’t it?  With scientists on one end of it and then we have the people on the floor operating the machines, tweaking the actual hardware, making the machines work.  It is a very broad community, I love it, and very diverse in terms of the range of skills.  We’ve got machine tool manufacturers that are getting into the additive game, that’s been a great addition, machine manufacturers make the best systems.  You have the whole gamut of fundamental science to people who have been making machine tools for decades.  It is a very awesome community. 

What is your advice for attracting the next generation into the AM workspace?

My boss is going to kill me for saying this.  My side of the house is systems and machine building, we need material scientists too.  If you have a system on your site, that is a huge, huge deal in additive manufacturing.  These are completely new processes for building parts bit by bit and that’s a completely new material and we need to understand that.  There’s a lot of material science to be done.  If you are interested in that, that’s a really great one to pursue to get into additive.  There are all kinds of things, there’s design, mechanical engineers can do additive in so many ways.  From the design of the parts themselves, to the design of the machines, to the design of the processes, there are opportunities for engineers, material scientists, chemists even.  You name it.  Pick a stem field, it can probably apply to additive manufacturing. 

How do you see AM evolving in the next few years?

I think the biggest thing for additive is artificial intelligence or at least some intelligence, right?  Right now, we call the machines “dumb”, because there is not that closed feedback loop.  The machines don’t know what they are doing, they just follow commands and then whether or not it happens the machine doesn’t always know.  There are some things they know but there are a lot of things they don’t.  That’s the biggest advance, is increasing the reliability and the quality of things that are printed additively, through artificial intelligence, through feedback controls.  There’s a lot of things we’re doing to make these machines smarter.  Which is really necessary if you are going to put it in an industrial environment.  There are so many different things that can happen during the process that you don’t want to have a technician sitting there, monitoring.  That, I think is one of the biggest things for additive.  Also, it’s not as attractive as artificial intelligence but materials development is huge.  What is the future of materials?  We can make materials now with properties you couldn’t make with normal processes.  We’re going to need some time but in the next few years those materials are going to be adopted and we’re going to see some amazing performance on some of these components for different automotive, or aircraft.  We get to be pushing the boundaries of our machinery and a lot of energy systems and transportation systems.  That to me, is exciting.  That technology push, that’s not just in the additive field but enabling other fields to progress as well. 

What is right around the corner and what is further out?

The low hanging fruit are process settings and powder bed, we have something called short spreading, where maybe your hopper is having a bad day, your powder is having a bad day.  It can clog and you don’t end up spreading as much powder as you needed to complete the layer.  One of the things we’ve been able to show is by using image processing machine learning we can tell the machine when that happens, and the machine can be monitoring for that and then correct for it.  If you see short spreading machine you need to spread a little more powder and so this problem goes away.  It’s something you can do that is a simple thing like that to ensure you are not killing a whole build because you missed a layer of powder.  Those little things, I think, are going to come together in a big way and make the machines more reliable.  Not only reliable but also more flexible.  We usually experience short spreading when there is a new feed stuck, not exactly tailored right.  So, have that type of capability where it can adapt is going to be huge to make these systems more reliable.  The further out stuff is there is this program called born-qualified, where you can actually, in the laser bed powder systems, you can watch the layers you are making, the thermal signature off the layer.  As you are watching that and gathering that data you can be deciding whether or not this part is certified to fly.  Normally you would go through your manufacturing process and then do non-destructive testing to qualify a part.  Now you just have to watch the process and you’ll know if this part is qualified or not.  You can also produce a digital twin that can help you.  I know what this part has been through, I know how it was made, and if I know how it has performed, or if it has performed good or bad, I can tie that back into my process settings.  You can really evolve products that way.  That’s a very broad way to talk about something very technical.  That’s kind of where we are going it’s not only qualifying these parts after we make them but then having the opportunity to enhance our designs and our process parameters through all that information.

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