Manufacturing, of course, is at the center of political debates in this election year, with many a politician lamenting the loss of jobs in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which have long made up the Manufacturing Belt.
Publicizing the economic importance of U.S. manufacturing, whose revival has been credited for driving the U.S. post-recession economy, the Obama administration announced in mid-August a brand-new public-private consortium called the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), located in Youngstown, Ohio. NAMII is one of 15 manufacturing innovation institutes being devised by the Obama administration to help manufacturers be more globally competitive and spur investment in the United States.
NAMII will call on 40 companies, 11 nonprofit organizations, nine research universities and five community colleges to further additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3-D printing, in the country. NAMII will provide infrastructure and support for research and development, assist small manufacturers particularly, give access to equipment and educate and train workers in additive manufacturing skills. NAMII was awarded $30 million in initial federal funding, which was matched by $40 million from the 65 entities involved in the new innovation partnership. Five federal agencies are involved in the initiative: the respective Departments of Defense, Energy and Commerce, as well as the National Science Foundation and NASA.
It is exciting that additive manufacturing (AM), which actually has been around for more than 20 years, is getting such a huge push. But it is now being touted as a potentially huge energy saver, waste reducer and an all-around environmentally friendly process, as well.
How big is additive manufacturing? Wohlers Associates, a leading independent consulting firm in the rapid product development field (of which additive manufacturing is a part), predicts that the additive manufacturing industry will gross $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016.
“We, the United States, must be the leaders in additive manufacturing, because it could lead to an industrial revolution,” said Ken Church, president of nScyrpt Inc., one of the 40 AM companies involved with NAMII. “This is something the whole world is doing, and will be doing, and we have to be out front.”
In talking to several experts in additive manufacturing, including presidents of companies that are involved in NAMII, several reasons emerged for environmentally aware consumers to anticipate and benefit from the growth in 3-D printing.
Tim Caffrey, a consultant at Wohlers Associates, says one area where additive manufacturing has improved on traditional machining is a significant reduction in waste.
“There are a lot of places in aerospace manufacturing where you’re doing work building things, where you’re leaving lots of chips on the floor, things like titanium and titanium alloy,” Caffrey says. “Additive manufacturing is a near-net-shape process; that means you use all the material and you don’t have any left over.”
The president of one company told me that, in the printing of sand molds for the casting industry, it is using 99.9 percent of its materials, whereas with traditional machining, it used 80 percent.
Then, there is the idea of heating smaller areas of the parts-making machines when using AM. Church says traditional manufacturing involves high-temperature processes where large areas need to be heated, but in a chemical process like additive manufacturing, “you’re only heating specific elements, like a 5-micron spot. That makes a big difference.”
Caffrey also talks about AM’s “buy-to-fly” ratio: an aerospace term for how much material you need to purchase in order to manufacture the final flying part. With traditional machining, due to the various geometric parts and shapes involved, the ratio could be 15- or 20-to-1; in additive manufacturing that ratio is cut to 2-to-1 or lower.
Another time- and space-saving aspect of AM is “on-demand” manufacturing, meaning that manufacturing shops build exactly the number of parts as needed and nothing more. AM avoids the lengthy and investment-intensive process of making molds and dies that are needed to make the parts themselves.
“Everything you have in inventory, that stuff is tying up space, and it’s energy-saving to not have it there,” Caffrey says. “You don’t need that big warehouse anymore, where you’ve got that big inventory of tools that aren’t needed; when you’re only making 10 of something, you don’t have to go find the [mold] you haven’t used in two years, buried somewhere back in the warehouse.”
David Burns, the president of ExOne, a global player in additive manufacturing, says the benefits of AM aren’t just felt by those making products, but also by the “downstream” customers, as well. When products are made by AM, the cost savings get passed on, in a reverse economies of scale.
There certainly are merits of efficiency and storage space with AM, but how will it help the environment? Burns points to AM’s use of atomized materials.
“When you’re dealing with atomized materials that you’re putting down in layers, you have the opportunity to capture the materials you don’t use and reuse them,” Burns notes. “When we create metal parts, we create and reuse loose metal particles, so there is no wasting of [materials].”
“The [traditional manufacturing] way, you’re losing a lot of [material],” Burns continues. Secondarily, “many machining operations require cooling, so you end up with coolant-laden chips. Coolant has to be dealt with from an environmental perspective. But additive processes are primarily coolant-free, so you’re not having those chips and wasting them.”
Another big environmental benefit of AM is the quicker processes that result in products in fewer steps.
“Additive processes are mostly single-step,” Burns says. “So when you’re creating a really complex object — let’s say it takes four hours — you can do that in one step. In subtractive machining, it would be impossible to do that in one step. So simply by doing the process in fewer steps, you’re using less energy.”
There was one more benefit that came up repeatedly in discussions with AM experts: savings in cost and energy from the localization of additive manufacturing, i.e., getting parts and materials from distributors closer to home.
“Because of the lead times that (additive manufacturing) enables you to gain, we get a file, and five to seven days later we’re giving a company a part,” Burns says. “It has less shop-floor labor content to it, so it’s bound to be more localized. “That could lead to more parts being made 10 miles away from where I’m going to use them, as opposed to 3,000 miles; you can determine how much environmentally that’s better because you’re not shipping things as far.”
All of the AM experts agreed that NAMII could bring sorely needed attention to the loss of U.S. manufacturing (despite the recent revival) and create jobs by training young people in a process that seems ready to assume its place in the manufacturing world.
If AM leads to millions of newly skilled manufacturing workers, the major investments going into it right now are worth it.