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U.S. Manufacturing 2013: From Rust Belt to Tech Belt 

rapid prototyping-winter 2013

Results of rapid prototyping for aircraft applications.

By Mark Kleszczewski

New innovations in additives make for exciting times.

Though much of American industry has been taking a beating for years from globalization, erratic demand and a flight of innovation and capital toward software and services, manufacturing has been drawing renewed interest recently as a strategy for creating jobs and growing the nation’s economy. Advanced “lightweighting” materials, new engineering approaches and production techniques and the widening adoption of robotics and disruptive technologies such as “3D printing” are also fueling a growing renaissance in the sector. Individual industries may face uncertainty, yet manufacturers and communities have much to gain from these converging trends — but only if they invest in new resources and adapt to new thinking.

According to the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), domestic manufacturing contracted to its lowest level in over three years last fall, indicating a struggle to gain traction. However, manufacturing still employs nearly 12 million workers and supports almost 5 million more jobs while over the past two years, notes the Economic Policy Institute, more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs have been recovered. In particular, food, computers and electronics, and motor vehicles and parts are above their 2007 levels, bringing manufacturing’s recent share of U.S. GDP to about 12.6 percent.

Not Your Father’s Factory

Manufacturing may still bring to mind images of dirty, dangerous and even demeaning work for some, but for today’s modern producers, such notions are long outdated.

“The manufacturing workforce of today is not the workforce of 50, 25 or even 15  ears ago,” says Debbie Holton, director of events and industry strategy, Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). “When it was just repetitive assembly, you didn’t even need a high school degree. You went across the street and simply got a job at the local plant. Today’s manufacturing jobs require much higher skill. Workers need to be able to problem-solve, do math, program computers and work with very expensive, intricate machinery.”

High-Tech Makes the Difference

“I’m actually quite optimistic and believe that America – as it has done many times in the past – can employ technology to drive great advances in productivity and efficiency,” says Bill Greene, CEO, Level 3 Inspection, LLC. “While there’s still going to be globalization, we’re on the verge of a manufacturing resurgence.”

Greene, whose firm is a world leader in white-light scanning and computer-aided inspection for precision manufactured products and tooling, cautions that this revival doesn’t really apply to material that can be easily injection-molded offshore, but rather for complex parts and goods. With advanced automation and computer-aided design, manufacturing, inspection and production can now be done with greater efficiency and far fewer iterations, cutting months of process development time and yielding a much greater percentage of good parts, while eliminating scrap.

“About 20 percent of our business is actually reverse engineering of legacy parts, which is a great opportunity,” he says, “and thanks to great partnerships with companies such as Geomagic, we’re bypassing traditional manufacturing processes and actually cutting 30 to 40, sometimes even 50 percent out of our time to market. When that’s measured in very expensive months running into the double digits, utilizing the latest technology ends up being a huge economic boom.”

Thinking Small is Getting Big

One of the most significant trends emerging in infrastructure and manufacturing is the shift from building big to building small, modular, mass-produced units that can be positioned in single or multiple locations as needed. For decades, “bigger is better” has been the conventional path to efficiency in industries ranging from transportation to power generation, but now, new research shows, we are on the cusp of a radical shift that has profound implications for both established and emerging industries.

“It’s a mindset of creating mass-produced infrastructure, rather than large-scale, custom-built projects,” says Garrett van Ryzin, the Paul M. Montrone Professor of Private Enterprise at Columbia Business School. “Moving from an ‘economies of size’ to an ‘economy of numbers’ approach means keeping devices small and mass-producing modular, standardized versions of them, resulting in tremendous hard and soft benefits.”

Van Ryzin and his colleagues point to three driving forces underlying this shift. First, new computing, sensor and communication technologies make high degrees of automation possible at a very low cost, largely eliminating the labor savings from large units. Second, mass production of many small, standardized units can achieve capital cost savings comparable to or even greater than those achievable through large-unit scale. And third, small–unit scale technology provides significant flexibility—a benefit that has been largely ignored in the race toward ever–increasing scale and one which can significantly lower operating costs.

Although there are many technical and regulatory hurdles yet to be overcome, the switch from large to small, optimal-unit scale production—observable in nascent form in several industries ranging from small, modular nuclear reactors, chlorine plants and biomass energy systems to data centers—is already resulting in reduced investment and inventory costs while offering greater flexibility to provide output when and where it’s needed.

“When you have such modularity and ability to achieve scale by producing small amounts locally, the rationale for centralizing production is definitely diminished and not just for industrial projects,” van Ryzin says. “Imagine having a 3D printer in a every repair shop that can print parts as needed.”  This ability to deploy technology and incrementally build capacity in a very decentralized way, he adds, will prompt many more industries to “think small” and thereby reap the benefits of this new paradigm in production.

Originally focused on plastic prototypes and concept models, 3D imaging and printing is rapidly branching out into other materials and being used in assembly tooling, functional testing and perhaps most importantly, on-demand manufacturing of wide variety of custom, limited edition products.

Production Enters Another Dimension

Indeed, one of the trends beginning to revolutionize American industry is rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing — also called 3D printing – based on a group of technologies that build up objects by adding materials, usually by laying down many thin layers as opposed to traditional machining which creates objects by cutting material away.

Identified by the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership as the technology with the most potential to enhance American manufacturing abilities, additive manufacturing is estimated to reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020, according to research from industry thought leader Wohlers Associates.

Originally focused on plastic prototypes and concept models, 3D imaging and printing is rapidly branching out into other materials and being used in assembly tooling, functional testing and perhaps most importantly, on-demand manufacturing of wide variety of custom, limited edition products. Anything from consumer goods to “combat labs” where soldiers print parts on-site or space stations where astronauts can make repairs on the fly, can benefit from 3D printing.

Supporting the successful transition of additive manufacturing technology to enterprises across the country are new public-private partnerships between government, academia and industry. Last year, a $30 million federal grant was awarded to the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining as a partnership between dozens of companies, universities and nonprofit organizations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers will play an integral role in the new National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), in Youngstown, Ohio, which will serve as a nationally-recognized center of innovation excellence and workforce development in additive manufacturing.

“Preparing the workforce and the community with education and familiarity with using technology is imperative. The fact is that you can no longer think conventionally. All of us need to realize that taking weeks to measure parts using 50-year-old technology is not the way to compete in the 21st century. We’ve got to be able to utilize advanced methods to benefit business and we must have capable employees.” – Bill Greene, CEO, Level 3 Inspection LLC

Holton, who is also acting deputy director of technology transition at the NAMII, confirms that when additive manufacturing first took off, it was very much about plastic prototypes, but today there are tens of thousands of 3D production parts in circulation, some even flying in airplanes. It’s something that’s been widely used by OEMs and large companies, says Holton, but the real key to economic growth for manufacturing is getting this out to small and medium-sized companies, because they’re really the engine that drives our economy.

“It’s a great opportunity for places like the old steel belt from Youngstown and Cleveland to Pittsburgh and West Virginia, which we see as a growing Tech Belt,” Holton adds.

As the U.S. and global economies recover, both the supply and demand for U.S. manufactured goods is expected to grow. The potential for long-term growth is even higher, if companies and communities work together to take advantage of many new trends emerging in technology and techniques, supported by a more agile workforce.

“Preparing the workforce and the community with education and familiarity with using technology is imperative. The fact is that you can no longer think conventionally,” urges Greene. “All of us need to realize that taking weeks to measure parts using 50-year-old technology is not the way to compete in the 21st century,” he says. “We’ve got to be able to utilize advanced methods to benefit business and we must have capable employees.”

“You can have the greatest technology in the world, but if you don’t have folks that know how to use it, even at the operator or technician level, it’s never going to fly,” agrees Holton. But, she says, these are really exciting times for the U.S. “In the same way that additive manufacturing technology shows what’s possible, the NAMII also shows what industry can accomplish when we collaborate and join together,” says Holton. “We’re excited for where this will take technology and the manufacturing industry as a whole.”

Illustration from: http://airfax.com/blog/index.php/tag/rapid-prototyping-for-aircraft-applications/

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About the author: Mark Kleszczewski

Mark Kleszczewski is president and CEO of GoBusiness Group LLC and a freelance writer on critical business topics. He can be reached at mark@gobusinessgroup.net.

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