Additive manufacturing, also known as 3DPrinting, is a new manufacturing technology of increasing relevance across many industries and across the globe.
3DPrinters work in a similar way to standard inkjet printers, except that they can use materials like plastics, carbon fiber, or titanium to print 3-dimensional objects instead of 2-dimensional documents.
With prices for the technology decreasing rapidly and quality on the rise, additive manufacturing presents great opportunity for innovation in industries as diverse as aerospace, consumer goods, and medicine.
Besides showcasing a commitment to an increasingly central and cutting-edge manufacturing technology, the announcement highlights the Obama administration’s tenacity in using existing executive authority to create jobs and spur innovation despite the procrastination of a do-nothing Congress.
It’s the latest in a series of the key initiatives illustrating the administration’s successful and sophisticated approach to spurring a jobs and innovation renaissance in American manufacturing industries.
In a global economy where competitiveness and job creation are increasingly driven by science, technology, innovation, and information, collaboration is key. The traditional “linear approach” to national innovation—where scientific research on the one hand and industrial production on the other are conducted and managed separately—is increasingly insufficient to cope with the increasingly interconnected nature of science, technology, and industrial production. And as these lines continue to blur, smart public investments like the new additive manufacturing institute must be similarly flexible in order to engage with an increasingly diverse network of innovation stakeholders.
“We’re not interested in building your grandfather’s research institute,” said Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of commerce, one of five federal agencies involved in launching the institute, in remarks delivered on August 16.
The approaches that worked for us in the 20th century aren’t good enough anymore. Instead, we need to build a 21st century model that reflects a strategic, global approach to competitiveness and innovation. This model has to be based on close partnerships between the academic and business world, with support from government as well. This type of collaboration is absolutely essential to ensure that Made in America remains a strong slogan well into the future.
Connecting the dots: manufacturing, innovation, and jobs
Manufacturing accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. economy, but is responsible for 70 percent of research and development, and employs a disproportionate number of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals.
There is broad promise for manufacturing in America, due in part to government actions to save the automobile manufacturing industry and also in part to the inventiveness of American companies and workers. The U.S. economy has added more than 530,000 manufacturing jobs since February 2010. We haven’t seen growth that strong for this long since 1989. In addition to jobs growth, wages too have increased.
But this is only the beginning of a recovery from a decade-long manufacturing slump that has cost the U.S. economy 28 percent of its high-tech manufacturing jobs since 2002, according to a study released by the National Science Board.
To keep the innovation-led manufacturing recovery roaring, we must continue to smooth the path for cutting-edge production-process technologies like additive manufacturing from lab research into widespread use. And to do this, we must do everything we can to build networks of innovation that connect research to practice.
As Gregory Tassey, an economist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, writes:
The issue of co‐location of R&D and manufacturing is especially important because it means the value-added from both R&D and manufacturing will accrue to the innovating economy, at least when the technology is in its formative stages.
In other words, innovators innovate better when they interact more closely with the producers of the technology, and manufacturers manufacture better when they interact with the research into innovative methods of production. In fact, beyond researchers and manufacturers, there are at least five kinds of public- and private-sector participants involved technology innovation, each of whose success is mutually bolstered by the activities of the others, they include:
- Users, or consumers
- Policymakers and regulators
No one of these innovation participants can innovate without the others. Economically meaningful technology innovation can no more be accomplished by researchers working alone in labs than by investors working alone at their computers on Wall Street. These five types of stakeholders are mutually interdependent members of innovation “networks.”
“Everyone has a role to play in making these regionally-focused institutes succeed,” said Acting Secretary Blank:
- “Governments at the local, state and federal levels can provide funds to get the institutes started. And existing resources, such as Commerce’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership which has technical experts in every state working with small companies, can provide critical on-the-ground support.
- Local universities and community colleges can make commitments to train students and workers—equipping them with the specific skill sets they need.
- Local innovation incubators and venture capital providers can help bring in entrepreneurs, mentors, and startup know-how.
- And both small and large manufacturers can contribute not only funds but also equipment, materials, and labor to get the institutes off the ground—as dozens of them have in the project we are announcing today.”
Investments in the shared infrastructure—both physical and institutional—that brings key players in a region together to collaborate and innovate are critical to maintaining our competitive position in the global knowledge economy.
What the institute does
The $70 million public-private pilot institute announced last week is the first of what the Obama administration hopes will become a network of up to 15 centers for manufacturing innovation. Based on a recommendation from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the White House budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2012 contained a plan to invest $1 billion in mandatory spending to fund the creation of these manufacturing innovation nodes.
The centers in this National Network for Manufacturing Innovation would serve three purposes, according to White House documents:
- To bridge the valley of death, by connecting the people and processes of basic research with those of product development
- To increase collaboration and participation of all innovation stakeholders, particularly small manufacturers, by providing shared access to “cutting-edge capabilities and equipment”
- To provide a platform for workforce technical skills development in fast-growing and rapidly changing sectors such as additive manufacturing
Though Congress opted not to fund the president’s request for the full network of 15 institutes, five federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce, the National Science Foundation, and NASA—used existing authorities already granted by Congress to commit $45 million ($30 million now and $15 million in the future) to pilot the program, and prove the worth of this approach to Congress. This investment also leverages $40 million in private investment to create a hub of innovation where all of those five kinds of innovation participants—including academia, industry, nonprofits, and the government—can collaborate to innovate around additive manufacturing.
“Innovation” policy, not industrial policy
To be sure, critics will say that American manufacturers would be better off without this level of government intervention; that the initiative smacks of classic “top-down” industrial policy doomed to fail; or that government should not be in the business of “picking winners.”
But those critics are not looking very carefully at what sets this initiative—and indeed all of the Obama administration’s innovation policy initiatives—apart from the market-distorting industrial policy of past decades.
First, this effort is “bottom-up” and network driven, not top-down and bureaucracy driven. There are no government regulations, mandates, or economywide market distorting incentives involved. Instead, the five-agency program uses a competitive grant process to screen applications from self-forming consortia of public and private players all participating voluntarily and out of self-interest. Remember, the $30 million grant was made with a matching investment from the winning consortium of $40 million. The winning consortium was a network of over 70 organizations representing researchers, large and small manufacturers, educational institutions, and nonprofits who understand the value of strategic collaboration.
Next, the process was competitive and merit based. The winning consortium was chosen based on the assets it could bring to the table. This is no bridge to nowhere or industrial boondoggle; the additive manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown will leverage and build upon the existing resources of partners in the eastern Ohio /western Pennsylvania / West Virginia region—including human capital, corporate and academic R&D capabilities, equipment, and existing industrial infrastructure. The winning consortium will also utilize capabilities and expertise from the Defense Department’s National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining.
Innovative cross-agency collaboration; targeted, strategic investments delivered via competitive grant programs; and leveraging the Defense Department’s extensive technological assets and investments for broader economic good are hallmarks of the Obama innovation approach.
Competitive grants in particular, which have been shown to be effective at driving demand and encouraging regional collaboration, have become a signature tool of Obama administration’s innovation and economic development policies.
Key examples—the Energy Regional Innovation Clusters program, the Economic Development Administration’s i6 program, and the multiagency Jobs and Innovation Accelerator—illustrate Obama administration’s sophisticated, 21st century approach to innovation policy began as early as 2009.
It is tempting to characterize these kinds of forward thinking innovation investments as “picking winners and losers.” But a better metaphor would be to say that these kinds of investments are like forming the league, setting the rules, and painting the lines on the field. Only then can the teams come together to compete and raise the level of the game. Similarly, this new additive manufacturing institute is a platform where over 40 small and large companies initially (and potentially more in the future), many of whom may be customers, clients, or competitors of one another, can share resources and guide and learn from cutting edge research.
What’s more, additive manufacturing by its nature is not a specific product in and of itself, but rather a platform technology that cuts across many industries.
Variants of the technology are already being used in production in many industries, from fighter jet parts, to medical devices, to electronics, and maybe one day even synthetic human organs. Were Congress to fund the entire $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation request, we would see similar investments made in 14 other similar cross-cutting platform technologies, reducing the appearance of favoritism even further.
Critics of industrial policy are right to decry irresponsible government favoritism toward specific companies. But this pilot institute, at least from the information we currently have available in this early stage, looks like a great example of how 21st century innovation policy can be done well: by making small, strategic investments in shared capabilities; encouraging collaboration among many different companies and categories of innovation participants; and cultivating the further development of nascent regional innovation networks.
This kind of innovative thinking about the convergence of science, technology, and industry works.
Large and small manufacturers and the associations that represent them are asking for it; and the numbers, with over 500,000 new manufacturing jobs added since 2010, also suggest that these kinds of investments can make a difference.
The new National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute will doubtlessly add momentum to the Rust Belt’s reincarnation as a 21st century Tech Belt. And with continued support from the White House and Congress, this approach to innovation policy can help drive the development of advanced technologies, create and retain more good-paying middle class jobs, and help renew the American Dream in struggling regions across the country.
Image credits: TOP – White House Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, BOTTOM – American Progress.
Here’s what $70 million will bring to Youngstown
When doctors at a prominent Ohio hospital were planning the best way to operate on a patient with a gaping 3-inch hole in his skull, they turned to a plastics manufacturer near Cleveland for a solution.
The company, called rp + m in Avon Lake, was quick to help.
It specializes in additive manufacturing.
Engineers were able to take a CT scan provided by doctors and replicate the exact dimensions of the skull using three-dimensional imaging software. A blueprint was created.
Using additive manufacturing, a prototype was developed in just days. A refrigerator-sized machine interpreted the file and designed a unique program to manufacture the skull from scratch — all in one machine.
Afterwards, surgeons used the manufactured skull to map where exactly screws would be placed on a cranial mesh protecting the brain. It enabled them to practice their operation and provided a reference model during surgery.
What could have taken months to build was finished in less than a week.
This could be the future of manufacturing: additive manufacturing.
Last month, Youngstown, along with the rest of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, were anointed pioneers of the technology for use in mainstream manufacturing. It came via the government’s announcement of a $70 million National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
NAMII will bring together 65 colleges, universities, private companies and nonprofit organizations to vastly improve additive manufacturing, which essentially uses plastics, resins and metals to “print” a product by adding layers, unlike traditional manufacturing which subtracts or cuts out raw material to create parts.
Research and development aimed at further commercializing the technology will be conducted at the advanced manufacturing hub, opening on Thursday, at the Youngstown Business Incubator’s annex on West Boardman Street.
What the consortium will achieve cannot be answered easily.
But in more than a dozen interviews conducted by The Vindicator over the last month, a clearer picture has emerged on what will happen at the advanced manufacturing hub, how the nascent technology works and what it means for both Youngstown and American manufacturing.
A SHIFTING INDUSTRY
For decades, restrictive trade barriers, high tariffs, cheap labor and pinched consumers seeking low-price goods have created a legion of adversity for American manufacturing to contend with.
The consortium signals a coming shift in the industry. Fading are the days when the American worker relied on his hands and mind to operate a lathe or a stamping press. The world itself is becoming increasingly driven by technology advances. The manufacturing industry is no different.
Manufacturing always has relied prodigiously on energy, raw material and labor to mass produce products.
To build a simple hand tool, a mold is required, metal parts need casting, and the product requires extensive machining to finish.
Foreign competitors have paired cheap labor and high-tech to persistently one-up American manufacturers for years. Other parts of the world already are ahead of the additive manufacturing curve.
“The last few decades of job losses have shown us what happens when we do not remain on the cutting edge of investment in equipment and our workers,” said Barbara Ewing, chief operating officer at the YBI. “When an industry is evolving, you can either lead the charge, or you can get run over by the early adopters.”
Today, additive manufacturing is evolving.
The machines require far fewer workers, they use far less material, and it takes less time to manufacture parts. If the technology is further developed, mass production and labor would no longer be the linchpin of successful manufacturing — the technology has the ability to give American manufacturing greater dominance.
“The government has identified that this technology needs to become resident and institutionalized in the United States because of the effect, because of the capital sea change it’s going to have on manufacturing in the future,” said Mike Garvey, president of M7 Technologies, a Youngstown manufacturer and NAMII partner.
Currently, additive manufacturing is used in academics and niche industries. Its capabilities are limited to small-scale production, with an ability to produce around 2,000 units. General limitations in size of product, strength of material and how fast machines can deposit or print material restrain the technology from operating on a grander scale.
“The goal is to take the technology from where it is today to a level where it can be more easily incorporated and it is more widely used and economically advantageous,” said Martin Abraham, dean of the STEM college at Youngstown State University, referring to the consortium’s mission.
“We want to ground the technology and make it more ubiquitous.”
Jim Cossler, chief executive at the YBI, says the technology needs to be user-friendly, intuitive and affordable enough so that the average worker can use it and the average manufacturer can purchase it. Today’s machines can cost more than $800,000, and different machines are required depending on what’s being built.
At rp + m, also a NAMII partner, Research and Development Specialist Clark Patterson demonstrated how additive manufacturing works.
A company in Ohio had requested an order for 200 retaining clips. The clips are used to prevent wires from tangling in moving machine parts. Without the clips, the company’s production ceased because its machine was inoperable.
To fill the order with traditional methods would take about eight weeks because specialized tooling would be necessary for the task.
Instead, engineers at rp + m used computers to design a 3D blueprint. The blueprint was then converted to a file the additive machines interpreted and used to develop a process for building the clips.
Afterward, nozzles inside the machine slowly dispensed plastic filament, which looks similar to wire on a Weed Whacker, to meticulously build the clips layer-by-layer. The parts were finished in one day.
“Where China can’t compete with domestic suppliers — especially the ones in your own backyard like some of the NAMII partners — is speed to market,” said Jim Bednar, sales manager at rp + m.
“When our customers get their hands on something that just came off our press, it’s critical to their development and their improving.”
There are several kinds of additive manufacturing processes, each using different methods and materials. Some use tightly focused lasers to sweep and melt powder into products; others use liquid that solidifies under a laser.
The applications are endless, with great potential for customizing parts such as hip replacements and aircraft components no longer in production because the tooling has long been taken off production lines.
FUNDING THE REGION’S ROLE
For these reasons, the U.S. Department of Defense has expressed the greatest interest in developing the technology.
According to White House officials, the $30 million in federal funding will be disbursed over the next three years, with 60 percent of that amount to be provided by the end of 2012. The 60 percent will come entirely from the DOD’s budget. The remaining award will be funded by the fiscal year 2012 budget authority of agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA, with the rest doled out in March 2013 and March 2014.
An additional $40 million will be matched by consortium partners. After three years, the consortium is expected to be mainly self- sustaining.
“We have to develop value for our members so that what we create will be appealing enough for them to continue contributing funds in the long-run,” said Ralph Resnick, president of the Latrobe-based National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, which will lead consortium members.
“In this way, the consortium will act as a matchmaker or facilitator to bring various companies together on projects that solve manufacturing challenges,” Resnick added. “We’ll provide the necessary collaboration and solutions, for which we can charge a fee.”
For Youngstown and the so-called TechBelt region of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the consortium’s benefit will be in workforce training, retaining high-tech jobs, hands-on education at regional universities and a trickle effect that could find prominent companies such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin coming to the area if the consortium’s research catches on.
But for now, other questions will take time to answer.
“This is really the birth of an entirely new form of production,” Ewing said. “It will be used to make things that we’re familiar with more efficiently, but it will also be used to make things that we can’t currently imagine.”