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Policy Initiative Spotlight: Building A New Manufacturing Base, Layer By Layer

by Steven J. Markovich
October 19, 2012

Three-dimensional printer "The Replicator" by MakerBot (MakerBot Industries LLC Handout/Courtesy Reuters). Three-dimensional printer "The Replicator" by MakerBot (MakerBot Industries LLC Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

In the beginning of the twentieth century, “manufacturing” brought to mind burly men shaping metal with forges or stamping presses; in the twenty-first century, that mental image may become workers typing at a computer terminal as a laser shapes a product tiny layer by tiny layer.  Additive manufacturing—also known as 3D printing—is expected to revolutionize production, and a new public-private partnership aims to accelerate change.

Launched in August 2012, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) is based in Youngstown, Ohio at the center of the “TechBelt” which runs between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.  NAMII’s placement could not only help revitalize manufacturing in the “rust belt” but draws upon regional talent and expertise; both major metro areas rank in the top six nationally for metal manufacturing employment. As Mike Garvey, CEO of M7 Technologies, a Youngstown-based maker of precision measurement tools, explained to Forbes: “Many people don’t realize this region has also developed significant expertise in software and advanced materials, which puts us in an excellent position to develop next generation manufacturing technologies.”

Additive manufacturing is not one technology, but includes an array of processes and material.  However, the overall idea is the same: a computer model guides the layer-by-layer creation of a complex design.  In one approach, a laser draws out the first layer by fusing powder particles in a bed, another layer of powder is added, and the laser goes to work again.  Once all layers are complete, the excess powder is removed, leaving behind the completed object.

Additive manufacturing has been around for decades, and was first used by design organizations for “rapid prototyping”.  The technologies have continued to progress while costs have plummeted; today 3D printing can even construct an acoustic guitar and MakerBot’s $2,199 desktop 3D printer can create complex designs.  Still, the industry is small with worldwide additive manufacturing only expected to reach $3 billion in sales in 2016.

NAMII’s goal is “to transition additive manufacturing technology to the mainstream U.S. manufacturing sector and create an adaptive workforce capable of not only meeting industry needs but also increasing domestic manufacturing competitiveness.”  To accomplish this it brings together federal and private funds with leading research universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Case Western Reserve, and dozens of industrial powerhouses such as General Electric, IBM, and Northrop Grumman.

While existing federal agencies have pledged $45 million to NAMII, the Obama administration expects NAMII to be a proof of concept for the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a program proposed earlier this year.  NNMI would invest $1 billion to create up to fifteen manufacturing innovation institutes to “serve as regional hubs of manufacturing excellence that will help to make our manufacturers more competitive and encourage investment in the United States.”

Critics of NNMI contend that the free market should drive R&D with direct commercial applications, while the government should focus on basic research and reforms to reduce costs borne by businesses.  While not disagreeing with the need for reforms to corporate taxes and trade policy, NNMI proponents see it as way to address a U.S. competitive disadvantage, a growing gap between early stage public research and later stage R&D by firms.

NAMII will use internal competition to ferret out and fund the projects that address the industry’s pressing needs.  As Gary Fedder, the head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Complex Engineered Systems, explained to Science Magazine, NAMII’s goals are different than a typical research center: “What the government wants is an entity to bridge the gap between applied research and turning something into a product. We know that what won’t work is a typical center, because there’s no productization and no money for companies to do any research.”

As manufacturing technology changes, so will the demands on workers.  Fedder also observed that “there are a lot of misconceptions about what modern manufacturing is.  Instead of sparks flying, these processes are computer-driven, and people need to learn those new skills.”

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