3-D printing may break manufacturing mold

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 8:42 a.m.

The mechanical arm slid back and forth over a beige pad, spraying a hair-thin layer of bonding agent during one pass and a layer of dust-size metal particles during the next.

Forward, back, repeat. Each pass produced an image that looked like something any printer could produce. Yet this one wasn't printing an image; it was making a metal engine part.

The process, called additive manufacturing or 3-D printing, could alter how products are made. Industrial players such as General Electric and the federal government are betting millions of dollars on the technology.

And Western Pennsylvania appears to be on the leading edge of what some are calling the next industrial revolution.

“Three-D printing will bring about the emergence of a new ‘Made in America' by revitalizing America's manufacturing industry, thereby sending Chinese workers packing as American companies set up their portable factories,” said Ralph Reznik, executive director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, or NAMII, a federally funded industry group that covers Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and northeastern West Virginia.

“Portable factories” isn't an overstatement. Three-dimensional printers that make plastic objects are available in sizes small enough to fit on a home desktop and cost as little as $500. The 3-D printer's effect on manufacturing could rival the desktop laser printer's effect on the publishing industry in the 1980s, Reznik said.

“The way we democratized publishing, we can also democratize manufacturing,” Reznik said. “Business Insider (a business magazine) called it the next trillion-dollar industry.”

Industrial-grade printers, such as those on display at a recent state awards ceremony at Herr's Island-based Acutronic, can be far larger and produce metal parts that are as heavy and solid as if they were forged — anything from jet engine components to prosthetic bones that precisely match the bones they replace.

Rather than requiring a lengthy design and development process, the parts can go from a 3-D computer simulation to the real thing in less than a day.

“The implications of this, I believe, are huge,” Gov. Tom Corbett said after touring Acutronic and seeing 3-D printers from North Huntingdon-based ExOne and Langhorne-based Paramount Industries.

“First, it means manufacturing, something we gave up for lost, is coming back. And it's developing here. It's growing here,” Corbett said.

The government decided in early 2012 to form an organization to foster and promote additive manufacturing, and it began looking in May for a place to locate what became NAMII.

The tristate area had a ready-made consortium that it offered as a host, said Gary Fedder, a computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the NAMII executive committee.

In August, federal officials selected the Western Pennsylvania-Eastern Ohio-West Virginia consortium to host NAMII — which came with a $30 million grant matched by $40 million in private-sector money to support research and development of additive manufacturing technology.

“The national economic leadership is finally recognizing that manufacturing is critical to our economy as well as our national security,” Reznik said.

The consortium of 14 research universities, community colleges, at least 40 companies and 10 nonprofits constituted the institute, based in Youngstown, according to the Department of Commerce. Western Pennsylvania members include Carnegie Mellon and Robert Morris universities, the University of Pittsburgh and companies such as ExOne and Westinghouse. National manufacturing giants including General Electric and Northrop Grumman are members.

“This I-80/I-79 corridor with nearly 32,000 manufacturers, commonly known as the Tech Belt, represents a smaller geographic area but larger manufacturing output ... than the two largest manufacturing states of California and Texas,” Reznik said.

The consortium existed in part because of Pennsylvania programs designed to bring university and private-sector companies together as an incubator for high-tech industries, said Fedder.

The state awarded ExOne, Paramount and Acutronic, a NAMII member and maker of motion simulators, grants to fund a graduate student for a year.

“These venues allow us to build our future workforce ... from within,” said Dominique Schinabeck, CEO of Acutronic. “There are career opportunities in U.S. manufacturing. This is the basis for a stable America of tomorrow.”

The public will have to become educated about the new face of manufacturing, Corbett said.

“If you go out on the streets of Pittsburgh today, or Harrisburg or Erie or Philadelphia, and you ask somebody ... what manufacturing is, I suspect you would get a description of 1955, of the steel mills, of the pipe works, because we have not educated the public as to what (modern) manufacturing is,” Corbett said.

“If we take the lead in additive manufacturing,” he said, “Pittsburgh could well be the place to which manufacturers around the world turn for their equipment.”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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