"I imagine not only the patients wanting it because it's going to be better for them immediately, but also not needing the reparative surgeries that follow on from having something that doesn't work as well," Dean said. "That will save money in the long run even if the technology is initially more expensive."
Bridging the valley of death
But private companies can't create the 3D printing revolution in U.S. manufacturing all by themselves. Much of the technology still lacks the level of strength, quality and precision needed to make gears or devices that can reliably work inside complicated, expensive machines or devices with possible life-or-death consequences.
"Manufacturing is much more demanding and complex," said Ralph Resnick, acting director for NAMII. "We need to have projects that have material properties that can meet the necessary requirements, that can be repeatable, and that can be identical from machine to machine, day to day — especially in demanding industries such as aerospace and defense."
That's where the NAMII, the new manufacturing institute, comes into play. It uses government funding as the proverbial carrot on a stick to get companies to work together with universities and nonprofits on helping 3D printing technology for manufacturing cross the so-called "valley of death" — the period of development between a lab's proof-of-concept and commercial product when private funding is often lacking.
The U.S. Department of Defense has headed the government charge by contributing the lion's share of the $30 million for the new additive manufacturing institute. NAMII takes its inspiration from the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, an organization first funded 10 years ago and currently led by Resnick, which has saved more than $500 million for the U.S. military.
Forging the future
Much still needs to be done. NAMII just officially opened its doors in August and issued its first call for projects in late November. The institute has an office at a business incubator in Youngstown, Ohio, where 3D printers donated by companies are available for use by NAMII partners. Many partners hail from former Rust Belt cities transformed into "Tech Belt" cities stretching from Toledo, Ohio, to Bethlehem, Pa.
If NAMII proves successful and perhaps even financially self-sustaining by the time its federal funding is used up within three years, the U.S. government could use its lessons to build the rest of a $1 billion manufacturing innovation network proposed by the Obama administration.
Back in the Case Western lab, students seemed not to feel the weight of such responsibility on their shoulders as they chattered and worked on their projects. A sense of fun pervades even the lab's décor — three wall clocks showed the same time as they sat above signs bearing the names of Tech Belt cities such as Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown (all three cities are in the U.S. Eastern time zone).
McGuffin-Cawley said that he wants to add Pittsburgh to the clocks to better reflect the broader Tech Belt region. But the hands of the clocks won't have to change — they'll simply continue their synchronized march into the future, one minute at a time.
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