Building a Better Future one Robot at a Time

on April 07, 2014 at 5:00 PM


For the past six weeks, students in Tennessee have been in front of computers modeling 3D designs and in workshops building robots. Their goal? To win the FIRST Robotics competition and along the way, show the world what’s possible with the next generation of manufacturing.

The FIRST robotics competition challenges high school students to design, build and program a complex robot that can compete in a game that changes every year. With help from the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Lab, students are incorporating cutting-edge manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, into their robots, while pushing the boundaries of research forward.

“It’s been a real eye opener for us,” says Dr. Lonnie Love, an Oak Ridge engineer and one of nearly 40 FIRST robotics mentors from the Lab. “Interacting with these kids helps us drive our research in new directions.”

Additive manufacturing — also called 3D printing — is a new way of making products from a digital model to reduce manufacturing waste, save energy and shorten the time needed to bring a product to market. Unencumbered by traditional ways of thinking, students try things with 3D printing that most engineers wouldn’t think of. And their creativity is paying off.

Four years ago when Hardin Valley Academy first entered the FIRST competition, the school didn’t have a machine shop, but students had access to a 3D printer. Dr. Love, one of the team’s many mentors, taught three students computer-aided design, and they built about 25 percent of their robot using additive manufacturing. The following year when Oak Ridge opened its state-of-the-art Manufacturing Demonstration Facility to all local teams, Hardin Valley’s team made the first and only all-additive robot in the competition — a record that they still hold today.

The mentoring relationship between Oak Ridge and FIRST robotics teams doesn’t just benefit the Lab. It’s helping teachers introduce advanced technologies in the classroom and inspiring students to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. Through a partnership with the Lab, seniors from area high schools have the opportunity to intern at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility and work on 3D printing projects.

This year to ensure that more students had access to advanced manufacturing technologies, the Energy Department and Oak Ridge donated almost 400 3D printers to teams competing in the FIRST competition and worked with industry and America Makes to provide an additional 50 printers to teams. Next year, the Lab hopes that all teams will have access to 3D printers through donations like these.

To learn more about the Energy Department’s additive manufacturing work, visit the Advanced Manufacturing Office website.