"Additive manufacturing" offers manufacturers a powerful set of tools for making any number of products cost-effectively and with little waste, a groundbreaking development that promises to help revitalize the U.S. manufacturing sector. But what will it take to get the process out of the lab and onto the factory floor? A generous cash infusion, perhaps unsurprisingly, will help—and it is now in the offing.
Pres. Barack Obama's State of the Union Address and, more recently, his proposed budget for fiscal 2014 lift U.S. manufacturing’s needs to near the top of the agenda. And unlike the low-tech production and assembly jobs that U.S. companies have been outsourcing for decades, the new age of manufacturing will rely heavily on additive-manufacturing technologies and materials, which are slated to receive millions of dollars in funding to move them out of the lab and onto the factory floor.
3-D printing is the most widely recognized version of additive manufacturing. Inventors and engineers have for years used machines costing anywhere from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands to rapidly prototype new products. All of the additive-manufacturing processes follow the same basic layer-by-layer deposition principle in slightly different ways using powdered or liquid polymers, metals or other materials. Each object begins as computer-aided design (CAD) or some other type of digital file, enabling designers to tweak their work prior to the actual build with little impact on cost.
At the low end of the scale, a MakerBot 3-D printer can build basic items like a hair comb or statue using polymer-based filaments. Industrial-scale, production-quality airplane or automobile parts, however, require additive machines and materials that don't currently exist. That’s where the funding comes in.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s fiscal 2014 budget request in particular includes $1.5 billion in that year alone to spur the development of new approaches to manufacturing (pdf) on top of the $1 billon investment the Obama administration committed to in fiscal 2013 to launch the National Network of Manufacturing Innovation, a group of up to 15 manufacturing research facilities across the country.
The first is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) in Youngstown, Ohio, which will focus on development of additive-manufacturing technology and processes with help from a planned $45 million in federal funding. The Defense and Energy departments have already provided $30 million of that amount, with NASA, Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Science Foundation expected to kick in the remaining $15 million over the next four years. Manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and nonprofit organizations have promised the institute an additional $40 million in funding.
The institute already has seven projects in the works. These efforts range from basic research about how polymers and other materials will react during the heating and deposition process to more industrial applications, such as developing a lower-cost, high-temperature process for working with thermoplastics used to make air and space vehicle components.
The animation below shows how one type of additive-manufacturing process—electron-beam melting (EBM)—works. EBM begins with powdered metal alloy placed in the machine’s powder hopper. The machine’s rake distributes a fine layer of powder across the build platform. An electron beam enters the vacuum chamber and melts the particles in a pattern as dictated by a CAD file. The build platform is then lowered slightly and the process repeats until the object—in this case, a turbine—has been fully printed.
There are several areas where the process could be improved, provided the government’s money is well spent: In addition to speeding up the procedure, manufacturers need to make sure these printed products are consistent from one assembly to the next. They must also develop ways to make more complex, detailed and multi-material objects. Still, with additive manufacturing on the national radar—and, more importantly, in the budget—it’s only a matter of time before most parts are printed rather than carved out of raw materials.