Lonnie Love is a senior research scientist in the laboratory’s Automation, Robotics, and Manufacturing group. His work at ORNL and in the local community runs the gamut from robotics to prosthetics to science education. We asked him about the impacts of his work and the challenge of working in an increasingly interdisciplinary research environment.
Your research interests include robotics, biology and engineering. Is there a common thread that runs through these projects?
That would be fluid power. I started working with hydraulics and pneumatics when Icame to ORNL in 1995 (as a postdoctoral researcher). My advisor had his doubts about that choice. However, after 17 years, every project I’ve worked on has had fluid power as its foundation.
You collaborate with scientists from a variety of disciplines. How does this “cross pollination” affect the scientific process?
It gets chaotic—but in a good way. When you’re part of a collaborative project, you can’t predict where you’ll end up. Everyone comes at the problem with a different perspective and a different set of skills. Of course, it’s helpful if they share some of the same personality traits. Researchers who are confident, open minded, entrepreneurial, and who see their work as an adventure, instead of a job, are more likely to succeed in collaborations. I’ve been blessed to work with people from all different scientific backgrounds at ORNL. It’s what makes the laboratory special to me.
Additive manufacturing has a lot of people excited. Where do you think this technology will have its biggest impact? [Note: Additive manufacturing is a process that enables custom-designed three dimensional parts to be “printed” using relatively low-cost equipment—see Printing out the future.]
No one knows—and that’s what’s exciting. Right now, most of the attention in this field is directed toward aerospace and biomedical applications. However, the technology screams for creativity. I think we’re seeing the first indications of this now. The opportunity for innovation in this field reminds me of when I was a kid and personal computers were being introduced. I remember in the late 1970s you could buy a computer as a kit, but you had to put it together, write your own software, and create your own drivers. This is happening again with manufacturing. You can buy a 3-D printer for $500. People are sharing models, coming up with modifications for the printers, and even generating new businesses based on the technology. Think back to 1975. Could you have predicted the impact the personal computer has had over the past 35 years?
Could you describe how your hydraulics research has impacted the field of prosthetics?
Commercial prosthetics are very limited. While there have been great advancements, cost is a big problem. That’s why most upper limb prosthetics today are limited to an elbow, a wrist and a claw. My group has been working on miniaturized hydraulics. The goal is to enable greater dexterity and strength at a lower weight and cost. The latest twist has been the addition of additive manufacturing to the manufacturing equation. We’re able to make things today that I couldn’t even imagine 5 years ago. We can blend the hydraulics directly into the structure of the prosthesis, much as is done in nature. The big advantage of using additive manufacturing is that we can make structures more complex without making them more expensive. We can create intricate designs that dramatically reduce the weight of various components. As we reduce weight, we require less material and less energy. Less material and less energy means lower cost. This is a true paradigm shift. This technology also makes it much easier to customize every device for every patient. While functionality is important, patients have routinely given up functionality for the sake of aesthetics. They want their prostheses to look natural. Additive processes can easily make lifelike prosthetic limbs that also function well.
A lot of your research has implications for industry. What do you see as the nation’s biggest challenge in the manufacturing arena?
Education, on many different levels. I really admire the work Dean Kamen has done with FIRST Robotics. He came up with away to get everyone—K–12, community colleges, universities, industries, laboratories—working together to make fundamental changes in science education when he established the FIRST Robotics competition for high school students. This really struck a nerve with me. There’s a group of researchers at ORNL who see this competition as a perfect platform for introducing the next generation of engineers and scientists to next-generation manufacturing, and it seems to be working. This year, ORNL supported eight FIRST Robotics teams. One of the teams built their entire robot using additive manufacturing. Dean Kamen saw pictures of the robot and asked if he could use them in a presentation he’s giving on the future of manufacturing. Is that cool or what?
We also need to come to the understanding that manufacturing is important to the nation. It is also critically important that the United States is able to create new products, manufacture them locally, and still be competitive globally. This is an area in which ORNL can have a tremendous impact.