3-D printing may break manufacturing mold
By Mike Wereschagin
Published: 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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Pandora sued by record companies
- Chocolate prices expected to soar as ingredients grow more expensive
- Wages have soared in Pittsburgh, but economy appears to have stalled
- Pa. unemployment rate falls to lowest since 2008; 12,000 more enter workforce
- Squeezed by competition, Chobani to expand offerings
- Mazda recalls 109,000 older SUVs
- Under the Hood: A chance to take top cars for a spin
- Investment in Western Pa. startups reaches 5-year high
- Emboldened by Italy move, QVC to expand into France
- Heinz offers Pittsburgh workers a buyout if they are unhappy
- Shale pioneer hires Chesapeake for drilling job