ORNL "prints" Shelby Cobra for Detroit Auto Show

Oak Ridge National Laboratory works with Cincinnati Inc. to 3D-print a Shelby Cobra using a thermoplastic resin reinforced with chopped carbon fiber.

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The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN, US showcased additive manufacturing research at the 2015 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, MI, US.

ORNL’s newest 3D printed vehicle pays homage to the classic Shelby Cobra in celebration of the racing car’s 50th anniversary. The 3D printed Shelby was on display January 12-15 as part of the show’s inaugural Technology Showcase.

Researchers printed the Shelby at DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL using the Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM, Cincinnati Inc.) machine, which can manufacture strong, lightweight composite parts in sizes greater than 1m3. The approximately 635-kg vehicle contains 227 kg of printed parts made of 20% chopped carbon fiber.

Recent improvements to ORNL’s BAAM machine include a smaller print bead size, resulting in a smoother surface finish on the printed pieces. Subsequent work by Knoxville, TN, US-based TruDesign produced a Class A automotive finish on the completed Shelby.

“Our goal is to demonstrate the potential of large-scale additive manufacturing as an innovative and viable manufacturing technology,” says Lonnie Love, leader of ORNL’s Manufacturing Systems Research group. “We want to improve digital manufacturing solutions for the automotive industry.”

The team took six weeks to design, manufacture and assemble the Shelby, including 24 hours of print time. The new BAAM system, jointly developed by ORNL and Cincinnati Inc., can print components 500 to 1000 times faster than today’s industrial additive machines. ORNL researchers say the speed of next-generation additive manufacturing offers new opportunities for the automotive industry, especially in prototyping vehicles.

“You can print out a working vehicle in a matter of days or weeks,” Love says. “You can test it for form, fit and function. Your ability to innovate quickly has radically changed. There’s a whole industry that could be built up around rapid innovation in transportation.”

The Shelby project builds on the successful completion of the Strati, a fully 3-D printed vehicle created through a collaboration between Local Motors and ORNL.

The lab’s manufacturing and transportation researchers plan to use the 3-D printed Shelby as a laboratory on wheels. The car is designed to “plug and play” components such as battery and fuel cell technologies, hybrid system designs, power electronics and wireless charging systems, allowing researchers to easily and quickly test out new ideas.