September 2013 / Volume 65 / Issue 9|
Brave new world for manufacturing
By Alan Rooks, Editorial Director
I’m skeptical by nature, so when I hear of something that will change the world as we know it, my first thought is usually, “Yeah, sure. Prove it.” I recall a discussion I had with a fellow editor back in the 1990s where she told me about a magazine article she had read regarding a new device that would “change everything.” The article didn’t say what the device was, just that it would hit the market soon. The miracle device turned out to be the Segway, which may have changed the lives of mall cops and a few tour groups, but that was about it.
But then again, there have been more than a few things that have changed the world, like the World Wide Web. I remember telling people, “It’s nice for information, but I’ll never shop or pay bills on it.” I was slightly off on that prediction.
So, despite my innate skepticism, I’m open minded about additive manufacturing, which at the very least is keeping writers and editors employed churning out article after article. A lot of the same “changing the world” predictions are being made about AM and a key AM process, 3-D printing. In case you’ve been in a coma, 3-D printing makes objects and parts by building them up layer by layer. But despite all the hoopla, I’ve heard a number bandied about that less than 1 percent of parts are made via AM methods.
So there’s good reason for caution. At the same time, however, there is big money being thrown at AM, and people a lot smarter than me are thinking this is the real deal. Will it be like the Segway or the Internet? It’s hard to tell, but it’s an interesting question to ponder—and an important one for people who make a living cutting and grinding parts.
One key marker is that the infrastructure supporting AM is growing. Private AM companies like Stratasys appear to be doing well, marketing their 3-D printers and printing services in a growing number of markets. And Youngstown, Ohio, ground zero in the rise and fall of the U.S. steel industry, is now home to the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a federally supported research hub focused on how 3-D printing technology can be transferred from research to commercial use.
At a recent Brookings Institution roundtable discussion, Rebecca Bagley, president and CEO of NorTech, a northeast Ohio technology-based economic development group, described NAMII this way: “We have been working on a ‘tech belt’ collaborative, and this was our big win in additive manufacturing. It affords a great opportunity to focus in on northeast Ohio, and also nationally, on how to build [an AM] supply chain, and also how to break down some of those [supply- chain] barriers for northeast Ohio and for the nation.”
NAMII, which is housed next door to Youngtown State University, has attracted significant private investment for itself and its academic partner. For example, Siemens announced a $440 million in-kind donation of goods and services to YSU earmarked for spurring innovation in AM (see article in Industry News on page 14).
Also, automakers have been using AM for years and have ramped up their use of 3-D printing to make prototype parts, though generally not production parts. As our article on page 48 discusses, major automakers have developed sophisticated AM networks that can rapidly build complex prototypes, allowing them to review multiple iterations and speed the process of making new parts. At Ford, designers use inexpensive MakerBot 3-D printers to make parts for quick evaluation, much as they once printed out their color drawings. And some automakers are using 3-D printing to make small runs of production parts for limited-run, high-end autos or for concept vehicles.
So, will AM eventually replace machined parts in automobile manufacturing, the heart of the U.S. part making business? Maybe, but not in the foreseeable future, it seems. Scaling up to production volumes remains a major roadblock. But I’ve learned to never say never, so 10 years from now I may be singing a different tune. As with any major trend that affects you directly, it makes sense to stay on top of something as potentially disruptive as additive manufacturing. CTE
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