3D printing could put U.S. manufacturing on brink of seismic change

November 26, 2012

When Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, recently held a pair of 3D-printed scissors in the air and claimed that the technology "could completely revolutionize manufacturing," it was seen as a ringing endorsement.

The announcement on November 20 that GE Aviation, a part of the largest manufacturing company in the world, had purchased a small precision engineering firm in Cincinnati was less theatrical, but may have a greater significance. Morris Technologies, a privately owned manufacturing company, has reportedly invested heavily in 3D printing equipment and is developing a new business strategy for its core product, the manufacture of metal parts.

The acquisition of Morris by GE has been made for an undisclosed sum but, according to The Economist, it is confirmation that the industry is on the brink of a potential seismic shift in manufacturing strategy. In recent months the technology used in additive manufacturing, which is essentially what 3D printing involves, has been under the media spotlight, with the standard concerns about printed replica firearms overshadowing the true value to the industry.

Companies that invest in 3D printers will have the chance to develop prototypes of products and reduce the economies of production that come as part and parcel of the manufacturing process. Prudent manufacturers will be able to use research and development teams to come up with innovative designs that can be quickly produced and redesigned if needed. This will allow flexible production and levels of mass customization that will also impact on the bottom line, with printed parts cheaper to produce and creating less waste material.

While the purchase of Morris is a tiny cog in the U.S. manufacturing machine, it has already seen the firm receive orders for components to be used in the LEAP jet engine, a short-haul airliner collaboration between GE and Snecma of France. This engine is expected to enter service within the next five years and, to date, there have been more than 4,000 orders placed.

Industry analysts see the purchase of Morris as a sound business strategy, and one that sees product innovation go hand in hand with the latest manufacturing techniques, with a spokesperson at GE describing 3D manufacturing as "critical to our future."

"It’s not going to replace factories, it’s going to replace how products are designed and made," said Dave Carroll, an associate professor at the Parsons School of Design. "It dramatically reduces design costs and makes producing things in America more affordable, thus generating jobs."