July 12, 2012

3D Printing To Revive U.S. Manufacturing

Enid Burns for - Your Universe Online

3D printing has emerged as a crucial tool for designers and the DIY crowd. But some people believe it might just revive manufacturing, and hopefully jobs, in the U.S.

A 3D printer deposits material in designated patterns, just like laser or ink-jet printers deposit ink on paper. But the new style printers deposit material - generally a polymer - that forms a three-dimensional object. Objects are built one layer at a time.

Companies are starting to produce products in some volume using this method. USA Today reports on one company, Irwin, Pennsylvania-based ExOne, that is using the 3D printing process, also called additive manufacturing, to print machine parts out of metal powder. ExOne makes and sells 3D printers. It also produces parts such as stainless steel boat propellers, oil pump parts, doorknobs and other contracted machine parts.

Where the medium was once viewed as a prototype, technology and lowered costs are making it feasible to use additive manufacturing on a wider scale. The printers can even print moving parts that have working ball bearings printed inside the parts. This was demonstrated by British engineers Chris Turner and Andy Hawkins, who built a working bike made from a 3D printing process.

These two companies are not alone in their manufacturing methods. The compound annual growth rate of additive manufacturing increased to two times its share since 2007 to reach $1.7 billion in sales of 3D printing products for part production. That's according to a report published by consulting firm Wohlers Associates. The firm estimates that by 2019, part making will comprise 80 percent of the part manufacturing industry's $6.9 billion in revenue.

Will an increase in additive manufacturing bring more manufacturing, and jobs, home to the U.S.? Yes, and not on a large scale expected in the manufacturing sector. Parts and products made from additive manufacturing processes are less expensive to produce, and therefore make products more cost competitive with comparable parts made in factories in Asia or other parts of the world. For U.S. consumption, the parts are also produced on U.S. soil, and therefore don't have to be shipped from overseas for delivery.

As far as jobs, it will create jobs, but not in the volume that a factory might employ. Where factories and plants have thousands of workers on the assembly line, additive manufacturing requires far fewer people. The parts must be designed on the computer, which might involve one person or a team of people. Once sent to production, all that's required is someone to oversee what design is sent to the 3D printer, someone to add material to the hopper, and someone to remove the printed parts once they're completed. The new channel of the manufacturing industry is creating jobs that didn't previously exist, just not as many as a new factory or plant.

The government believes in the potential of additive manufacturing. In May the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, issued a call for proposals to create additive manufacturing innovation ideas.