PART 6: Volunteer Aerospace got its start at the MDF, growing rapidly

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final 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 Volunteer Aerospace LLC, a company that was incubated in the space and is rapidly growing in a nearby facility.)

When we published this article nearly two years ago about a new Knoxville start-up, Co-Founder Jonaaron Jones said, “It’s faster than we thought it would come.” He was obviously referring to the rapid growth, something that has not abated for the self-funded enterprise.

At the time, Volunteer Aerospace LLC had just moved into its new facility at 1719 Schaeffer Road in West Knoxville’s Hardin Valley area. There were two additive manufacturing machines on the floor with plans to add two more and what Jones thought would be sufficient space for the foreseeable future.

“I thought we would run out of power first,” he said. “It now looks like we’ll run out of space first.”

The current location has 5,000 square feet, but Jones says he will soon need 30,000 square feet, and he’s already making plans to expand sometime in 2021.

“We have five machines on the floor right now,” he says. “We’re well past our original projections.” Those called for three machines in 2019 – the original Concept Laser XLine-1000R that was moved from Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, a smaller Concept Laser M2 and a third as yet to be determined machine.

Another noteworthy accomplishment has been the implementation and certification of an AS 9100/ISO 9001 program. This effort was led by Devon Burkle and will help position Volunteer Aerospace to secure aerospace production programs.

Recently, Volunteer Aerospace began switching-out two of the smaller machines as its volume of work increases while also adding a  XLine-2000R.

The company’s headcount is also growing. There are six full-time employees with two more to be added before the end of the year and a projection of two more during 2020.

What’s driving the growth?

“It’s aerospace and defense work,” Jones says. Those two sectors account for about 90 percent of Volunteer Aerospace’s  business.

“Big companies are becoming more comfortable with and trusting additive,” he says of the technology that is the start-up’s core business. “Companies are also getting more comfortable with us.”

Jones says he divides his time equally between sales and R&D. “I need to replicate myself,” he says with a laugh.

While the vast majority of Volunteer Aerospace’s customers are in two sectors, their needs are about equally divided between R&D and actual production of components. “It’s still low rate . . . not hundreds of parts,” Jones says.

He, his wife and Burkle founded the company with significant support from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, from which Jones earned his master’s degree, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF). In fact, much of the early work was undertaken in the original MDF.

“We’re still doing a lot of material development with ORNL,” Jones says.

The materials with which Volunteer Aerospace works include six alloys – aluminum, nickel, cobalt, refractory, titanium, and steel.

How long does it take to get a 3D-printed part from an idea to production? Jones says anywhere from 12 weeks to half a year. The steps are significant – part selection, initial design, material testing, design of allowables, redesign, production of first article, LRIP (low-rate initial production) run, initial testing, and full-scale production.

“A big emphasis lately has been on electronics enclosures with internal cooling features,” Jones says.

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