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Manufacturing

The fine print

By Nick Wright

Additive manufacturing picks up where Youngstown’s steel industry left off

November 2012 - If there’s a city emblematic of U.S. manufacturing’s highs and lows, it’s Youngstown, Ohio. 

A city once known as a steel-producing juggernaut, driven by the growing country’s hunger for metal, Youngstown struggled as other Rust Belt cities with industrial decline. But its infrastructure, manufacturing heritage and regional resources made it an ideal location to advance additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing—an emerging technology that’s rethinking what it means to manufacture.

In August, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) opened in the city’s downtown, serving as a hub for developing 3-D printing. Currently focused on metals and polymers, what the institute ends up developing could represent a fundamental shift in fabrication. That is, in the case of metals, rather than fabricating metal by cutting raw metal away, parts are created by adding layers of material. 

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The NAMII grew out of President Barack Obama’s attempt to rejuvenate U.S. manufacturing with the creation of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. Under that group, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM), a public-private group that tests manufacturing technologies for the Department of Defense, manages the NAMII.

Scott Deutsche, manager of communications for the NCDMM, says initially, 3-D printing was a quick way to realize models and prototypes before a company committed resources to production.

“With advances in materials and technologies, additive manufacturing can now be used to create final components directly,” he says.

Current industries sourcing printed parts basically cover anything—consumer goods, electronics, medical, automotive and aerospace—that needs components. Particularly in the latter two industries, for short-run complex part production, metal additive manufacturing has many cost-effective advantages. Not only can new parts be made quickly, so can replacements in case there is a defective or broken part. 

The issue of scrap is essentially eliminated, as well. Depending on the part, 80 or 90 percent of an aluminum bar or plate will be machined away before yielding the desired product. Not to mention the risk of distortion from machining. The nature of additive technology cuts waste, as opposed to more subtractive processes where waste or scrap is inevitable.

Challenges catching on

But the idea of 3-D printing won’t necessarily take hold overnight.

Dave Burns, president and COO of ExOne, a North Huntingdon, Pa.-based company that develops and tests additive manufacturing, says the biggest challenge for 3-D printing’s growth is people’s inherent beliefs about how things should be made.

“3-D printing must be proven as an acceptable alternative to traditional manufacturing—demonstrating the same strength of materials and predictable outcomes,” he says. The basic lack of experience with the technology, which eventually will be overcome as people get more comfortable with it, is a hurdle as well.

ExOne is one of the NAMII’s partners, offering cost share contributions and industrial expertise. The company demonstrated its M-Flex metal printer at the Emerging Technology Center of this year’s International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago.

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“We believe that by the next IMTS in 2014, we will be seeing additive manufacturing not just as ‘emerging’ but as arrived,” Deutsche adds.

Although the adoption of metal printing has been slower in manufacturing because of the bigger investment required, manufacturers are catching on, Burn explains. Additive printing imparts design freedom in creating parts fit for purpose and affordable, and is viable where flexibility, creativity and speed are crucial to delivering prototypes or products. 

November’s FABTECH show in Las Vegas won’t feature any companies that specialize in 3-D printing, says John Catalano, the show’s manager. For now, the technology is “another tool in the metal manufacturer’s box,” more supplemental to prevailing metal fabrication methods. 

But, he notes there is interest because some fabricators may run into a design that requires certain characteristics that would optimally be rendered with printing. In short, it depends on the application. For example, Lockheed recently partnered with Sciacky Inc., a Chicago-based additive manufacturing company, to make aerospace parts to reduce waste compared to traditional chipping methods of manufacturing.

“When you are talking about parts made from expensive metals such as titanium, that’s a real issue,” Catalano says.

ExOne mainly prints stainless steel, offering the ability to print metal parts without engineering constraints inherently assumed with other methods. “Through ExOne’s metal additive manufacturing process, a variety of parts are printed daily, including impellers, rotors, stators, prosthetic devices, filtration devices, heat exchangers—the list is very long,” Burns says.  

As more companies catch on and 3-D printing comes more of age, manufacturing can all but embrace it. The shift will be gradual. “The time for additive manufacturing is now,” says Burns. FFJ

Check out this video of the 3-D printing process: 

Sources

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Camfil APC - Equipment Trilogy Machinery Inc. Metamation Inc. Admiral Steel
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