A new consortium of industrial businesses, academic institutions and non-profit organizations has been put together to support additive fabrication and educate the public that manufacturing is high-tech and attractive. What are some of the benefits we can expect to see from this initiative as the sector tries to remake its image?
The United States manufacturing sector is facing numerous challenges: a growing shortage of skilled workers, a decline in international demand for U.S. exports and a sluggish economy that is impeding growth across a range of industries. However, a new consortium for manufacturing innovation is introducing efforts to revitalize American industry, backed by a combination of federal and private-sector funding. If it succeeds, it’s likely to be the first of many public-private initiatives working to kick-start U.S. manufacturing.
The new partnership, known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), is based Youngstown, Ohio, and brings together member organizations from industry, academia, government and workforce development agencies with the intended aim of moving additive manufacturing technology into the “mainstream” of the U.S. manufacturing sector.
“NAMII is the pilot institute for a new type of partnership between research and business and academia,” Darrell Wallace, acting deputy director of workforce and educational outreach at NAMII and a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Youngstown State University, told IMT. “This center is explicitly focused on technologies that are as near to commercial viability as possible. We’re looking for technologies that can have tremendous value but for some reason haven’t made the transition to the market yet.”
“[I]nvestments like this new pilot institute demonstrate the potential within a region to bring together the capabilities of America’s companies and universities, in partnership with the federal government, to invest in the cutting-edge technologies and skills our manufacturers need to compete,” according to the White House. “With this initiative, Youngstown is poised to become the epicenter of burgeoning new industries from its leadership in additive manufacturing or 3-D printing.”
NAMII plans to boost American manufacturing competitiveness through three key measures:
- Developing a collaborative network for sharing information and research between companies and educational institutions;
- Facilitating the development and application of efficient and flexible additive manufacturing technologies; and
- Educating students and training a highly skilled workforce that can adapt to the changing requirements of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes.
The initiative is also intended to help bridge the skilled workforce shortage by opening up new opportunities for potential employees to enter the additive manufacturing field and by overturning certain misperceptions about the day-to-day realities of manufacturing work.
“A big piece of the skills gap is attributable to a historical evolution that has taken manufacturing out of the academic realm and out of public favor,” Wallace noted. “For a long time we’ve treated manufacturing as if it’s a bad word, and that’s had a negative impact on our economy. Our educational infrastructure hasn’t supported manufacturing for many years. That bias is based on archaic perceptions of manufacturing. Modern manufacturing is very technologically complex.”
The effort to enhance the manufacturing workforce will “not just be on the technical level, not just the technicians, but training for the engineers, designers, and production people as well,” Resnick explained. “The core benefits of what additive manufacturing can deliver in terms of design flexibility and time-to-market will be pivotal in addressing the need to have skilled people in key roles.”
The federal government is providing $30 million in initial funding for the project, with an additional $40 million contributed by a consortium of manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and non-profit organizations in the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia “Tech Belt.”
“NAMII specifically empowers people who don’t understand manufacturing or manufacturing process to really engage with manufacturing and access it. The nature of additive manufacturing is actually very comfortable for today’s younger generation and how they understand the world,” Wallace added. “NAMII really reaches out to a new generation of manufacturing employees and gets them excited and interested in manufacturing processes. Manufacturing is sexy again.”
At the date of its establishment in mid-August, NAMII had 40 member companies, including Autodesk, Boeing, General Electric, Honeywell, IBM, Johnson Controls, Kennametal, Lockheed Martin and Stratasys. There were also nine research universities participating, including Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve and Penn State universities, as well as five community colleges, including Eastern Gateway Community College and Penn College of Technology.
Among the non-profit organizations partnering through NAMII are the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium, the Ohio Aerospace Institute and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
While additive manufacturing accounts for a relatively small portion of overall manufacturing production, NAMII aims to expand this share and integrate high-tech 3-D printing methods into a broader range of applications. Despite the push for newer techniques, traditional manufacturers and the existing workforce are also expected to benefit from the initiative.
“To be clear, traditional manufacturing is not going away anytime soon,” Resnick pointed out. “But with the emergence of additive as a viable, robust and reliable manufacturing process, a re-trained and technologically aware workforce will be able to fully access the depth of benefits that additive delivers. It will sometimes replace traditional methods for low-production and prototype work, but more importantly, it will serve to enhance the effectiveness of many traditional methods by creating in-process tooling and fixturing, near-net-finished parts, energy savings, reduced scrap and shorter run times – just to name a few [advantages].”
NAMII is the first of up to 15 manufacturing institutes proposed by President Barack Obama in March as part of a $1 billion investment plan to strengthen U.S. manufacturing. But how will the first institute actually work to promote and improve additive manufacturing processes? One of NAMII’s key features is that it is a collaborative effort not based solely on making money. It allows engineers and other innovators to propose projects, such as finding a better way to make titanium products.
“At this point, the educational component of NAMII will come into play. Professors or students at Case Western Reserve University, Carnegie Mellon University and Youngstown State University, among others, can try to take on the problem through research. A metals expert connected to the institute may also be brought in to provide a certain level of expertise,” Manufacturing.net explains. “From here, NAMII will turn to a company like ExOne as a printing resource…Once prototypes have been developed, they will move on to another entity within the institute for testing and certification.”
As innovative methods and useful research emerge from the institute, as well as increasing numbers of skilled workers that can form an efficient labor corps for advanced manufacturing, government and local businesses in other key manufacturing regions are likely to collaborate in the creation of additional public-private partnerships to boost manufacturing. As such, the NAMII initiative may be the first step toward a new era in American competitiveness and manufacturing performance.
“It changes how things can be made, and it will open up a whole new category of manufacturing. Mass customization is now a reality — we’re opening up lots of new ways for entrepreneurs and inventors across the country to gain access to the market and bring out creative products that haven’t seen the light of day,” Wallace said. “Additional economic benefits will derive from ancillary businesses that arise around these new products and services. It’s making manufacturing accessible to the public. It’s going to change business models, supply chains — it’s an opportunity to change manufacturing in a radically positive way.”