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James Earle and Maxwell Robinson

University of Tennessee students demonstrate capabilities of 3-D printing

James Earle and Maxwell Robinson

University of Tennessee engineering students Maxwell Robinson (left) and James Earle (right) stand by “the terminator”—a figure composed of durable-plastic parts made using 3-D printers. The two spent their summer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the Volkswagen Distinguished Scholars Program gaining hands-on experience in 3-D printing, robotics, and other elements of engineering.

James Earle and Maxwell Robinson scan their ID badges at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and enter into an expansive balconied area that, on this day, smells like burnt metal from welding work. Standing in their line of sight is their summertime showpiece: the terminator. Down the staircase, along the facility wall, stands a row of 3-D printers that produced the highly detailed humanoid made of durable acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) plastic. Its skin is a smooth, ripple-lined gray; its eyes: red circles. Earle and Robinson—both undergraduate engineering students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville—stand beside the figure and press on its various limbs to demonstrate its range of movement. Next year, Earle said, the terminator may walk.

Robinson and Earle took part in the Volkswagen Distinguished Scholars Program managed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities. The annual program grants students from six select Tennessee universities the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge, automotive-related research that also includes a one-day trip to the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The terminator, along with the participants’ other summer projects, demonstrated how additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, could be used to create a solid object from high-strength polymers instead of metal, the more expensive alternative. The technology has many benefits, including saving manufacturers both time and money in their product development processes.

Among Robinson’s roles at the laboratory was designing prototypes of the terminator’s hand—mimicking the joints and bones of a human—using computer-aided design, or CAD, and SolidWorks software. Then he converted the files to a printer-accessible version. Designing straight from the computer to the 3D printer speeds up the otherwise cost- and labor-intensive manufacturing process. “We literally design a part out on the computer, do a few file conversions, click and print and wait a day or two, instead of weeks,” he said.

Like Robinson, Earle assisted in the design of the terminator.  He also helped determine a method of assembly to ensure the uniformity of the arms for submersible robotic crafts. These crafts are intended for small-scale underwater interactions, like shipwreck exploration or monitoring or controlling oil rigs, which could help deter multi-million-dollar spill cleanups, according to Earle. For two such crafts to efficiently interact with each other, the arms need to function similarly. This functionality depends on the flow of hydraulic fluid through the craft’s valves. “What we’ve been doing is building these valves and testing them a lot to measure the flow rate,” said Earle.

Both Earle and Robinson showed at an early age an innate curiosity as to how things work. “As a kid, my parents got mad at me all the time for taking apart remote controls for the TV and putting them back together maybe 70 percent of the time correctly,” Earle said. In high school he developed a love for automotives, and during his senior year, he worked on rebuilding a motorcycle. Over the years, his interest in reconstruction and design fueled his current desire to do research and development.

Robinson, a video-game lover and former team captain of his high school’s FIRST Robotics team, grew up disassembling and reassembling gadgets. He remembered a time as a four-year-old when he disassembled his grandfather’s ham radio without his permission. “He shifted his pipe and said, ‘put it back together.’ Apparently I did, except for one or two small things wrong.”
Robinson’s mechanical mindset inclined him to apply to the VW Scholars Program where he could “play with robots.” Over the summer he spent a lot of time with directional robotics in addition to helping design the terminator’s hand.

Overall, the program exposed the students to a network of professionals and a wealth of hands-on experience. “We actually had a good say in what we did,” said Robinson, who enjoyed the freedom he and Earle had to propose ideas.

Dr. Lonnie Love, the students’ mentor, was so impressed with Earle and Robinson he invited them both to work part-time during the school year and return next summer. “I’ll take as many students next year as I can get,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s such a good program.”

Learn more about the Volkswagen Distinguished Scholars Program and other educational programs available at ORNL.