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While serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan, US Navy construction mechanic Matthew Sallas may not have imagined where his experience would take him next. But researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) certainly had the future in mind as they were creating programs to train men and women like him for tomorrow’s maker workforce.

Matt had returned to Knoxville, TN from a tour of duty in 2013 and was working as an installer in the home remodeling business, but he was looking for an opportunity to parlay his natural inquisitiveness and mechanical skills into something more. When he heard about a special 6-week internship at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL, he took a chance.

Matt was among more than 120 applicants to the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Advanced Manufacturing Workforce Development Program for returning veterans and wounded warriors. He and 14 others chosen for the program received an accelerated, hands-on introduction to the field of advanced manufacturing, including the opportunity to design and print objects in 3D.

Matt’s skills as a mechanic served him well in the internship. Today, Matt operates and maintains the biggest 3D printers as a staff technician at the MDF, the two Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machines, as well as a large-scale milling machine that trims excess material from printed parts.

Matt Sallas stands outside of the BAAM machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Matt Sallas stands outside of the BAAM machine at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Photo by Carlos Jones, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Since his time as an intern, Matt has been involved in some of the most high-profile prints at the MDF, including the Shelby Cobra sports car, the house for the Additive Manufacturing + Integrated Energy project, and the mold for a new Boeing airplane wing, which earned a Guinness World Records title for largest 3D-printed solid object. His favorite project was printing a replica of a 1952 Willys Jeep, which took only 3 weeks from printing to assembly.

“I’m always working on something new here,” Matt said. “We’re basically figuring out the puzzle of how to print [a variety of objects]. You never do the same thing over again. It keeps me on my toes.”

Veterans: An 'ideal workforce'

Working at the MDF has given Matt a solid foundation in advanced manufacturing. He has gained skills in CAD design, programming, mechanical and electrical engineering, and heavy equipment operation.

Matt’s work on the BAAM printer, in fact, resulted in his being a contributing author to a paper that examined the impact of temperature decay on bonding during the printing process for objects made with carbon fiber–reinforced acrylonitrile butadiene styrene thermoplastic.

The best thing about working at ORNL? “The people. They’re great to work with here,” Matt said. “They have my back, and I have theirs.”

They’re great to work with here. They have my back, and I have theirs.

Matt Sallas

Matt’s mentor at the MDF is Lonnie Love, ORNL Corporate Fellow researcher and leader of the Manufacturing Systems Research Group. “The veteran’s program was really eye-opening for me,” Love said. “We currently have over 300,000 open manufacturing jobs in this country. At the same time, we have over 10,000 active duty service men and women entering civilian life every month. These veterans like Matt are the ideal workforce. They’re loyal, hard-working, not afraid of a challenge, and are used to working as a team. All they need is a little direction, and they can have amazing careers. ORNL served as the pilot for this program, which is now being replicated at other national labs. Getting Matt to be a part of our team was an added benefit.”

Matt Sallas shows Energy Secretary Rick Perry some of the MDF's work.
Matt Sallas shows Energy Secretary Rick Perry some of the MDF's work.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Matt continues to serve in the Navy Reserve, training at least 1 weekend a month and 2 full weeks each year to maintain readiness for deployment. He is close to earning his associate’s degree in engineering technology from Pellissippi State Community College and has plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He is also a certified first responder.

Matt’s advice to other young people is that although school is important, students should also pursue real-world experience: “You’ve got to get out and do the internships. Get out there and learn. That’s my philosophy.”

*Article first posted by Stephanie Seay at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.