Sometimes known as “3-D printing,” additive manufacturing uses emerging technologies to fabricate parts by building them up layer-by-layer. It allows rapid transformation from “art” (CAD model) to “part” (manufactured product), and shows great promise for applications as diverse as lightweight aerospace structures and custom biomedical implants.
How does it work?
Metallic, plastic, ceramic, or composite materials are laid down one thin layer at a time and placed precisely as directed from a digital file. Frequently, the raw materials used are in the form of powders or wires that can be melted and shaped by a laser, in a fashion somewhat akin to welding.
An example application for the medical industry would be the creation of an artificial jawbone. A 3-D computer model of a jawbone is created based on a person’s bone structure, and this model is sliced into many layers. The computer then feeds the information into the additive machine, which could generate the complex bone structure substitute out of metal.
How does additive manufacturing impact the economy?
Additive manufacturing is largely an emerging technology that shows promise for the defense, energy, aerospace, medical and commercial sectors. Its ability to build up objects directly makes it a good alternative to conventional machining, forging, molding and casting for rapidly making highly customized parts. While additive manufacturing is most attractive for making complex parts in relatively small volumes, it can be used for rapidly making tools and dies used in large volume manufacturing. The technology also shows promise for creating parts in situ, such as at forward-stationed military bases. Because of its potential, many companies are experimenting with the technology. The field of companies using the technology to make commercial products today is relatively small, but growing, and includes the makers of machine parts and aircraft cabin components.
The expected long-term impact is in highly customized manufacturing, where the technique can be more cost-effective than traditional methods. According to an industry report by Wohlers Associates, by 2015 the sale of additive manufacturing products and services could reach $3.7 billion worldwide, and by 2019, exceed $6.5 billion.
What is the administration doing to support additive manufacturing?
The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), which President Obama announced in March 2012, is just one of these initiatives. The NNMI will accelerate innovation and increase U.S. manufacturing competitiveness by bringing together federal agencies, industry, universities and community colleges, and the states to invest in industrially relevant manufacturing technologies with broad applications. An interagency team chose additive manufacturing as the focus of the NNMI pilot institute, which will have a physical incubation hub in Youngstown, Ohio. The pilot institute will bring together a regional network of 14 research universities, community colleges, at least 40 industry partners and 10 non-profit organizations and professional societies from Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and West Virginia, with the goal of building a national presence and network. With a nearly $40 million match to the $30 million federal investment, the private sector response is a strong indicator of interest in a successful public-private partnership.