Manufacturing revival could lean heavily on additive production

January 9, 2013

U.S. manufacturers looking to ensure that the much-vaunted revival of the industry continues are likely to be keeping an eye on the results of a two-day manufacturing innovation showcase held at the Pennsylvania State University.

According to Scientific American, the future of U.S. manufacturing could center around a technique that has already made a high-profile entrance into the industry, with government agencies and companies making additive production techniques the ones to watch in 2013. Although 3D-printers have already made their way into the consumer marketplace, the trend seems to show no sign of slowing down, hence the interest in a dedicated showcase of its potential.

While manufacturers are unlikely to fully replace traditional assembly-lines with 3D-printing machines, there is little doubt among industry analysts that the technology could have a major say in commitment to manufacturing quality. In the last 12 months, there have been a number of retail environments dedicated to producing low-cost replicas of objects, while a personal printer can cost as little as $500. This puts 3D printing firmly at the forefront of consumer attention, with the manufacturing industry keen to ensure that it maintains a grip on the mass production of consumer goods and mechanical parts.

With an industrial 3D printing machine costing at least $30,000, manufacturers have been cautiously dipping their toes into the waters of additive production. At the high end of the industry, equipment that can manufacture metal products can set a company back as much as $1 million, a significant chunk of change when considering that the process cannot match the speed of the more traditional means of mass production.

Conscious of the need to make sure that the U.S. manufacturing renaissance continues, there have been a number of government-backed initiatives that have focused on additive manufacturing, while NASA has already started looking into the possibility of producing parts for future missions. The showcase at Penn State was put together by the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), the first of 15 hubs proposed by the Obama Administration, and NAMII is expected to receive $45 million in federal funding, the majority of which is coming from the Defense and Energy departments.

While the future looks bright for 3D printing, U.S. manufacturers do have an advantage. The adoption of lean enterprise has allowed companies to be flexible enough to take on board these new technologies and apply them in a workplace environment, a strategy that overseas competitors may struggle to match.