(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth article in a multi-part series focused on Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, truly one of the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region’s greatest technology and innovation assets. In this post, the focus is on a partnership that involves Techmer PM LLC, a company that has its largest manufacturing plant and headquarters operations in Clinton.)
“It’s a golden asset for East Tennessee and the country,” Tom Drye declares at the beginning of an interview about the relationship between the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Techmer PM LLC.
Techmer is a leading polymer materials design company that works in deep partnership with plastics processors, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and designers to solve some of their most difficult business, manufacturing, and sustainability challenges.
For much of the past decade, Drye, the company’s Vice President for Emerging Markets & Innovation and Applications Development, has been involved with R&D activities at the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest multi-program laboratory. That work was focused initially around carbon fiber, but Drye shares a late 2013 story about how he first learned of the MDF.
“Alan Franc (Techmer Product Development Manager) and I were with ORNL’s Jesse Smith, and we had just left a meeting at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility,” he said. “Jesse said that he was headed over to the MDF to check-out a new 3D printer. I asked him what was an MDF?”
When Smith, who is a major interface between industry and ORNL, explained the then less than two-year old facility, Drye said that light bulbs went off. “I had challenged our team six months earlier to determine where our fit was in 3D printing. We’re resin guys . . . compounders. Is there a fit for us?”
Drye and Franc tagged along with Smith that day where he saw the then early 3D printer affectionately known as The Blue Gantry, which would eventually lead to the new Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine developed by ORNL and Cincinnati Incorporated. Drye also met Lonnie Love, an ORNL Corporate Fellow and currently the Group Leader of the lab’s Manufacturing Systems Research Group. The Techmer executive recalls Love asking: “Who are you? What do you do? Where are you located?”
When the ORNL researcher leader learned about Techmer – the company now has seven production sites strategically located throughout North America – and how close by one of those was to the MDF facility in Hardin Valley, the relationship quickly blossomed.
“It became a runaway train,” Drye says in an understated way.
In a little more than a year, the partnership between Techmer and MDF progressed from the company producing small quantities of carbon-reinforced polymers that it transported to ORNL for testing on the new BAAM machine to the lab actually printing a Shelby Cobra car using Techmer’s specially designed 3D materials.
Readers may recall that project generated worldwide news in January 2015 when then President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden visited Techmer’s Clinton plant to view the completed car. The visit was part of the announcement of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI).
Of the work with ORNL on the Shelby Cobra, Drye, a 38-year veteran of the compounding industry, says simply, “There are only a few times in your professional life you can help drive such a technology breakthrough.” Yet, that was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what has come from Techmer’s collaboration with ORNL and the MDF.
Most recently, Techmer announced last May that it was launching a new high‐capacity, twin‐screw production line at its Clinton facility. The company’s newest high‐speed manufacturing line is specifically designed to produce high‐quality, modified, carbon fiber‐reinforced polymers to support growing demand for 3D‐printed products. It represents a multi-million dollar investment in the region.
Drye is very emphatic on why the relationship has blossomed as it has, and it starts with the culture that has been embraced by Craig Blue, Bill Peter and other top leaders at the MDF.
“It is such an open and collaborative environment,” he explains. “These are very talented people with great ideas and integrity. But if the approach is challenged, professional pride never gets in the way of enthusiastically welcoming it as an opportunity to do something even better. ”
The exposure that has come from the work with the MDF has shown a spotlight on Techmer of the magnitude that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. As a result, the company is now gaining traction with high-level OEMs in aerospace, industrial, and other market segments that were not a customer previously, but now are.
“It’s truly a symbiotic relationship,” Drye says of the work between Techmer and ORNL. “They give us what we need, and we give them what they need. The result is a win for U.S. manufacturing.”
Regular readers also will recall that we posted a video in mid-July that Drye used in a presentation at a meeting of the East Tennessee Technology Council. It captured how diverse and impactful 3D printing has become.