3D Printing Could Become the New Driving Force in US Manufacturing

17th July 2012

Paul Davidson from USA Today has written an interesting article about the potential for 3D Printing to become a new driving force in US manufacturing.  We’ve put a few highlights from the article below but would recommend viewing the full article over at USA Today.


Since just a few employees run dozens of printers some experts say the technology can neutralize the low-cost labor advantage that countries such as China and India enjoy over the U.S. That, along with 3-D printing‘s ability to accommodate quick product launches, is expected to accelerate a nascent “reshoring” trend that has seen a growing number of manufacturers bring some production back to the U.S.

“It becomes very cost competitive with anything you can get from China,” says Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

While 3-D printing may well mean fewer U.S. manufacturing jobs in the near term, Paul  say the growing number of factories that likely will relocate to the U.S. should yield a net increase in employment. With that goal in mind, the federal government is spending $45 million to help fund a planned additive manufacturing institute that will develop innovations for the burgeoning industry and help bring it into the mainstream.



Another benefit is that the 3-D printer layers only as much metal powder as needed. Standard manufacturing cuts figures out of blocks of metal or other substances, often wasting as much as 90% of the raw material. Also, inventory costs are sharply reduced or eliminated, because a small number of parts can be made on the fly, circumventing traditional industrial machinery that must make many thousands of widgets to be cost-effective.

On the downside, industrial-size 3-D printers can cost several hundred thousand dollars or even upwards of $1 million, compared with as little as $50,000 for a milling machine. Printing materials, such as plastic or metal powder may cost more than 60 times as much as their traditional equivalents. That’s one reason 3-D is often not cost-efficient for large production runs or huge pieces. Another is that a batch of widgets still takes hours or even a day or two to print, while similar parts can be injection-molded or metal stamped in minutes.

As a result, the technology is currently being used to reduce start-up costs and delays for typically complex or customized parts made in limited quantities. For example, 3-D printers routinely make surgical tools, medical implants and orthodontic braces that are tailored to patients’ unique bone or tooth structures.

But as production speeds and quality continue to improve, and printer and material prices fall, a growing universe of industrial parts is expected to be printed rather than bolted, bent or molded.

Christine Furstoss, who heads General Electric’s manufacturing and materials technology group, says up to half of the parts in GE’s energy turbines and aircraft engines could be 3-D printed in 10 years.

Boeing has been using 3-D printing for a decade to make parts such as electronics covers and air ducts that cool computer or electrical equipment, says Michael Hayes, a Boeing design engineer. Printers can make ducts of varying shapes that fit through tight spaces or bend around structures, saving material costs. A duct can also be made without the need to first produce expensive tools. And it can be built as a single piece, rather than in multiple sections, eliminating assembly lines and cutting labor costs.

By using only necessary material and doing away with bolts and screws that meld parts together, 3-D has reduced the weight of certain parts an average 10% to 30%, saving fuel costs. All told, 3-D-made parts have yielded 25% to 50% in savings, Hayes says.

“The quality is improving,” he says.

For example, the layers form tiny ridges that can give parts a rough, textured feel. But as 3-D printers put down larger numbers of thinner layers, surfaces have gotten smoother — critical, say, for a small, visible object in the first-class cabin. 3-D-made parts also have gotten stronger. “Before, (a part) didn’t last. Now, it’s comparable.”

In recent years, Boeing has dramatically increased the number of distinct parts it prints to about 300. And the technology has cranked out a total 22,000 pieces across 10 types of military and commercial aircraft, including the Dreamliner. Eventually, Boeing expects to use 3-D to make an entire unmanned air vehicle and possibly even a commercial airliner, or at least a wing.

“That’s where the industry is trying to go,” Hayes says.

3-D Printing is well aligned with the push to reduce the weight of products. The link between this new manufacturing method and design optimization was recently covered in a blog post by Altair’s Jamie Buchanan which can be found here.

Read the full article on USA Today