I am sometimes inclined to hyperbole when describing the creative genius of American manufacturers, but the reality on the shop floor outpaces my ability to capture in words what our factory wizards are actually achieving. An excellent case in point is the rapidly emerging field of additive manufacturing (AM) that is sometimes confused with 3-D printing, which is actually a subcategory of AM.
AM represents a sea change in the way we make things. From the industrial revolution until the present, most manufacturing has been a subtractive process, chipping away at a slab of metal, a chunk of wood, or a plastic composite of some kind to hone a finished product into being. To make items of steel, for example we begin with a piece of metal that is roughly the dimension we need and use dies, shears and machine tools to whittle it into the desired shape. This is easier to do with wood or plastics, of course, but the basic process is the same. It requires a lot of energy and produces a lot of noise and waste. After a while, the dies and other tools used to shape the material grow dull and must be replaced. The products made near the end of the cycle naturally tend to be less precise than those made early in the cycle.
Additive manufacturing turns this process on its head. Additive manufacturing processes create three-dimensional products based on computer files by sequentially depositing thin layers of liquid or powdered metals, polymers or other materials on a substrate. You only add what is needed so there is no violent cutting or chopping, little noise and negligible waste. AM puts material only where it is needed. The results are precisely made products time after time with no erosion of quality.
Up until the present, additive manufacturing has been limited by the technology's limitations, largely in terms of the size of products created. Most existing AM systems are limited by an enclosed deposition zone, such as an oven. The greatest uses today are in the biomedical industry, such as designing implants to fit a patient's particular needs. The layer-by-layer printing of items in additive manufacturing today lacks the speed and scale required to replace casting, molding, machining and other traditional manufacturing methods.
But additive manufacturing may be poised to burst through this limitation. Lockheed Martin and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory are developing a revolutionary concept they call Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) that will be able to manufacture much larger components in open air environments. The vision is of a swarm of robots depositing layers of material in close synchronization with each other. BAAM has the potential to revolutionize AM for large-scale, highly complex systems.
AM also is getting support from the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), the first of 15 "innovation institutes" using $45 million from President Obama's $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation set up a year ago. Manufacturing companies and academia have promised $40 million more. This is an excellent example of a public-private partnership working to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.
Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements. April 2013