PART 1: ORNL’s MDF combines big vision, strong relationships, commitment to excellence, and timely execution for the customer

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a multi-part series focused on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility {MDF} at Oak Ridge National Laboratory {ORNL}, truly one of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region’s greatest technology and innovation assets The first three articles examine the MDF from the perspective of ORNL; the other three spotlight ways that local companies are capitalizing on the facility.)

When you combine a really big vision with amazingly strong relationships, a commitment to excellence, and an unwavering insistence on timely execution for the customer, there’s no telling what you can accomplish.

From my perspective, initially as an insider leading a directorate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and now as an interested outside observer chronicling technology and entrepreneurship, that description very accurately describes the evolution of the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) that opened in early 2012 in the Hardin Valley area of West Knoxville.

Today, the MDF has already outgrown its initial 50,000 square feet and relocated earlier this year to a building next door that provides a total of 110,000 square feet. One can only speculate on how long the larger space will accommodate the rapidly growing programs that involve strong partnerships between ORNL scientists and industries critical to the nation’s future.

The MDF, part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Manufacturing Program at ORNL, is clearly an asset with which many local residents might not be familiar. That’s certainly not the case nationally for manufacturers who are seeking ways to remain competitive in the global marketplace in everything from controlling costs to adopting new and better technologies and processes.

Companies that publicly allow their names to be used in relation to their work at the MDF include Add Up, Boeing, Cincinnati Inc, GE, GKN Aerospace, Lincoln Electric, ExOne, Emrgy, Polynt Composites, Techmer PM, Strangpresse, Zeiss and Magnum Venus Products just to name a few.

We sat down recently with Bill Peter, MDF Director, to review the history of the MDF, albeit a mere seven plus years after its opening, and the plans for the expanded space as well as the future.

“Craig was the grandfather,” Peter said of the vision, something that no one in the know would dispute. “Craig had been dreaming of this for a long time, at least since the late 1990s or early 2000s.”

He was referring to Craig Blue, ORNL’s Director of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Programs. Anyone who has ever met Blue will walk away from a discussion remembering his passion for manufacturing, his breadth of knowledge about all things related to manufacturing, and his willingness to tackle some of the biggest technological challenges that others might decline.

The MDF is one of three unique facilities that fall under DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Program banner. The others are the: (1) Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, a 42,000 sq. ft. building providing a platform for identifying high-potential, low-cost raw materials including textile, lignin, polymer and hydrocarbon-based precursors; and (2) the Battery Manufacturing Facility, the country’s largest open-access battery and research development center focused on high-performance, low-cost water-borne processing technology, high-speed curing for advanced electrodes, low-cobalt and cobalt-free cathodes, and high-performance computing for advanced processing, performance validation, and life prediction.

The focus of this multi-part series is on the MDF, the capabilities housed there, and the various ways that manufacturers are drawing on the expertise to improve their competitiveness. To illustrate the importance of the MDF and the emphasis that the DOE has placed on its work, one only needs to consider a key fact.

“One-third of the energy used in this country is on manufacturing,” Peter says, noting that ORNL has always had programs looking at ways to reduce energy usage. “We also look at strategic materials that may take more energy to fabricate the material but decrease the energy in application such as transportation. An example is in light weighting transportation where carbon fiber reinforced composites may take more embedded energy in manufacturing than materials such as steel but will reduce the energy used over the life cycle of the vehicle.”

Prior to 2012, Peter says, “We did not have a mechanism or place to facilitate more robust interactions with industries.” That all changed thanks to a strong working relationship Blue had developed with an administrator at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA. When Leo Christdoulou was selected to lead the renamed DOE Advanced Manufacturing Office, the vision that Blue had suddenly got legs.

Today, ORNL’s MDF is DOE’s only designated user facility focused on performing early stage research and development to improve the energy and material efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness of American manufacturers. The research conducted there focuses on manufacturing analytics and simulation, composites and polymer systems, metal powder systems, metrology and characterization, machine tooling, large-scale metal systems, and robotics and automation.

Peter says the initial vision when the inaugural MDF opened was a focus on six pillars: lightweight materials, additive manufacturing, composites, roll-to-roll processing, low temperature synthesis, and transient field processes.

Just three years after its opening, the MDF and work done there drew national headlines when then President Barrack Obama and then Vice President Joe Biden visited the region to see an electric vehicle printed at ORNL and announce the new manufacturing hub named IACMI or the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. Without the MDF, it is highly unlikely that the announcement would have been made and the region would be headquarters for this major initiative.

NEXT: The evolution of the MDF in the early years.

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