Obama Bets on 3-D Printers to Revive U.S. Manufacturing

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Date: Thursday September 5, 2013 11:31:52 am | Views: 350
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    Obama Bets on 3-D Printers to Revive U.S. Manufacturing
    Katherine Ling, E&E reporter
    YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Working in manufacturing can be dangerous and dull.

    But you would never know that from the excited, smiling faces of children watching a laser beam slowly melt layer upon layer of plastic sand.

    The 3-D printer could have been producing a cheap, specialized component for a wind turbine or electric vehicle.

    But on this day, it's producing plastic flying discs based on designs from the children, ages 7 to 11, who were attending the summer camp at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) here in Youngstown. The "junior innovators" learn Frisbee physics, create their own 3-D designs on a computer and almost instantaneously know whether their Frisbee designs will soar or flop, because they are "manufactured" on the spot by a 3-D printer.

    "I suppose it is an advanced take on folding paper airplanes," Rob Gorham, NAMII's deputy director of technology, says with a smile.

    Helping children experience 3-D printing is exciting, Gorham said, and is similar to NAMII's larger mission to increase U.S. experience and knowledge in 3-D printing. The application of information technology to improve the business of making things, such as 3-D printing, is known as "advanced manufacturing," and experts say it is sparking a "third industrial revolution."

    [Junior innovator]

    A "junior innovator" looks into a 3D Systems Corp. SLS sPro 60 printer at the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. Photos by Katherine Ling.

    The White House and stakeholders are banking on success in advanced manufacturing to revive U.S. manufacturing and to forge ahead in dynamic industries like clean energy. It will also make manufacturing more environmentally sustainable, lowering energy and material consumption, they say.

    NAMII's success is key to the White House's push to boost manufacturing to improve the economy and create more jobs. And so far, the pilot project for President Obama's National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) has not disappointed its supporters, attracting 79 partners and already funding seven collaborative projects just a year into its existence.

    NNMI institutes are public-private partnerships that focus on "the missing middle," the gap in development between research and commercialization to scale up new ideas, according to Michael Molnar, director of the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office and director of the Advanced Manufacturing Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the Commerce Department.

    The institutes are not meant to be research laboratories, but they "create space" to convene top talent from universities, large to small companies and government to test and gather data for promising new processes, technologies and materials to make it easier for companies to work with them, Molnar explained.

    "What is critical for industry using a new material or a new technology is 'de-risking' it," he said.

    NNMI was the No. 1 recommendation from a 2012 report by the nation's leading CEOs and universities, including Ford Motor Co., Dow Chemical Co., Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gathered by Obama to identify ways to elevate American competitiveness in manufacturing.

    In this year's State of the Union address, the president asked for $1 billion over 10 years for 15 NNMI institutes. Last month, Obama upped the ante in a speech on the middle class, saying that the aim should be 45 in total.

    Congress has yet to fund all of NNMI, but the administration has already moved to set up the first three institutes. They have a federal funding commitment of $200 million over five years drawn from five agencies under existing budget authority, to be awarded by the end of the year, according to the White House. Federal funds would be at least matched from the private-sector consortium awarded any project.

    The fact that the departments of Defense, Energy and Commerce; NASA; and the National Science Foundation have found the money to fund NNMI in this tight budget environment shows how important this initiative is across the administration, Molnar said.

    Despite the White House emphasis, however, outside focus on the institutes has been minimal compared with other efforts to support manufacturing, such as the push to revamp the tax structure — which stakeholders agree has more near-term impact — or tax incentives, especially for renewable energy.

    But for the alternative energy sector, creating these public-private partnerships is crucial, according to Bill Janeway, regarded as one of the founders of the modern private equity sector and a partner at private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

    Overall, the digital economy has momentum and investment, Janeway said in an interview with Business Insiderlast March, but "what we are missing, what has stalled is building the groundwork, the foundations for the next new economy, that low-carbon, green-tech, alternative-energy economy that most of us know we really need in the face of climate change."

    NNMI is coming at the right time, said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management. The opportunities for entrepreneurship are switching from software to hardware — real products like batteries or solar panels — which he sees reflected in his own students' interests.

    "There is a lot of belief that this is different," Aulet said. "The barriers of entry for getting into energy are very hard. You really need these kinds of things."

    Brad Markell, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Council, said the NNMI initiative is helping to focus work that has been happening in the manufacturing sector for some time.

    "All the things we are going to have to solve, the problems we have — more mobility for people that doesn't pollute, clean energy, biomedical advances — all that stuff is going to flow from manufacturing. I think there is a realization that countries need to capture the effects of innovation in manufacturing and have it feed back," he said.

    Stopping the bleeding

    A misperception of manufacturing as labor-intensive, low-paying work is part of the challenge of gathering more interest in the sector, according to NIST's Molnar.

    "Manufacturing still has an image of the four D's: dim, dirty, dangerous and declining," said Molnar, who spent 30 years in manufacturing in the private sector. "It is really a high-tech, high-touch sector that is exciting, and this other image of manufacturing … is a difficult nut to crack.

    "If you visit any of our plants, our floors are white. You could eat off of them if you wanted to, but you wouldn't want to because you would mess up the floors," he said.

    Manufacturing still employs 12 million people in the United States — that, in turn, supports 2.5 million jobs in other sectors, and, at the upper end, each high-tech manufacturing job supports 16 others, according to a 2012 report released by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Each dollar in final sales of manufactured goods supports $1.35 in output from other sectors, the report says.

    [3D printer]

    3-D printers are able to manufacture complex, movable objects in just one step, as demonstrated by simple toys displayed here at NAMII's 3-D printer workshop.

    About 70 percent of corporate research and development existed in manufacturing in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation. A manufacturing "ecosystem" with significant participation from small and medium-sized enterprises is key to this innovation cycle, providing important supply chain and idea feedback loops. But that is where the United States is bleeding the most companies, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

    Companies creating high-skilled, advanced technology like lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells are manufacturing abroad in Germany, China and South Korea because they have the ecosystems of suppliers and manufacturers that are flexible enough to quickly adapt to new technology and ideas, according to ITIF, which was an early proponent of NNMI and a national advanced manufacturing strategy.

    The loss of a U.S. manufacturing ecosystem is a problem that a single company or university cannot fix, according to a white paper from MIT's Production in the Innovation Economy (PIE) project released this spring. The PIE white paper is the summary of an analysis and recommendations from a cross-disciplinary group examining U.S. industry from different perspectives that MIT will publish later this month.

    "The key functions are convening, coordination, risk-pooling, risk-reduction and bridging. They are public goods that the market does not generate," the white paper says. "In contrast to tax breaks, which many states hand out, new resources in these cases are embedded in institutions which do not stand or fall on the participation of any one member. Convening brings into existence new collaborations and new common resources."

    'Giving innovation a push'

    Enter NAMII and the future NNMI ventures aiming to solve the tragedy of the "industrial commons" — including shedding manufacturing's assembly-line image from Henry Ford's heyday.

    In fact, despite being in the heart of the Rust Belt, NAMII could fit in easily in San Francisco. Almost everything at NAMII is cutting-edge, from its workspace layout with white boards and "neighborhood" desk cubicles to the dozen or so 3-D printers showcased on the main floor, all of which are on consignment from companies that refresh them as new models are released. The modern edge is offset with historical character from the original burnished wood floors and brick walls that belonged to the century-old former warehouse it is housed in.

    NAMII's Gorham says the institute is essentially a startup: It is building new relationships, creating a "market" for its services, finding "big impact outcomes," attracting members that pay a range of $15,000 to $200,000 to join and untangling significant intellectual property issues.

    "We are having to pave the way through the jungle and hatchet through things," Gorham said.

    A case in point is the revamped "strategic roadmap" that NAMII released last week, which includes a second set of project calls totaling $9 million and a new project call process generated from members, after complaints about the first one being too broad, Gorham said.

    NAMII's first project call included examining additive manufacturing issues such as qualifying the properties of powder metal beds; developing thermal imaging to identify issues earlier in the production process; gathering data and testing for a new plastic material known as ULTEM 9085 ideal for aerospace, automotive and military applications; and improving the cost and sustainability of 3-D printing technologies.

    Sustainability is an important area of research and opportunity for 3-D printing, Gorham noted. Being able to make an object in one process, instead of carving it away from blocks of metal and piecing it together, saves a significant amount of energy and resources, especially for complex objects with moving parts or made of different materials.

    For the aerospace industry, where Gorham was formerly employed for many years, this ratio of materials to product is called "buy to fly," and additive manufacturing can cut this ratio from about 70-to-1 down to about 7-to-1, he said. NAMII is also looking into the reuse of new additive printing materials and lowering the energy use of 3-D printing machines, he said.

    University participation in NNMI naturally builds more sustainability and environmental concerns into the conversation, according to Lisa Camp, associate dean for strategic initiatives at the School of Engineering at Case Western Reserve University. Case Western is participating in one of NAMII's first projects and is one of the institute's original members.

    "When a university gets involved, you are changing the perspective of what manufacturing means" and involving students who are excited about and thinking about manufacturing, Camp said. "This is a sustainable generation. They think about things differently. That's a great power to bring to this sector."

    Sustainability and environmental innovation are just one example of the new conversations among universities, large manufacturers, and small and medium-sized companies that are happening in the "Tech Belt" where NAMII is located in eastern Ohio, along with Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Camp added.

    "We are spurring action that is a little bit different," she said. "Would industry have done this without NAMII? Maybe, eventually. But now that we are giving innovation a push, they are taking it up themselves sooner."

    Elizabeth Wayman, a senior adviser in DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said the strength of the institutes is not only in conversations within an institute or region, but the ability for them to be "linked" and build off the work between them and across federal agencies.

    For instance DOE is leading one of the three new institutes, which will focus on next-generation power electronics — mainly a technology known as "wideband gap semiconductors" that can significantly improve energy efficiency and power conversion for industrial motors, inverters, transformers and electric vehicles. Wayman says it will work closely with the second NNMI institute, led by DOD and focusing on digital manufacturing and design.

    DOD is also standing up the third NNMI focused on lightweight metal, which can similarly work closely with DOE's Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is not officially part of NNMI but is a public-private partnership to lower the cost and scale up the use of carbon fiber, a composite, lightweight material that is at least as strong as steel and shows significant promise for the aerospace and automotive sectors.

    "This is going to be a transformative asset for the nation," Wayman said. "It will ultimately lead to not only American leadership in the clean energy economy but for U.S. competitiveness broadly in the manufacturing sector."

    Three-legged stool

    The lack of certain funding from the government is giving many stakeholders pause about the long-term impact of the project, although it is still very early in the process. Another element of concern is maintaining a strong NNMI participation by small and medium-sized businesses, which need to experience benefits — whether in data or relationships — relatively quickly to justify the expense.

    Gary Fedder, an adviser for NAMII and the director of the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES), the Howard M. Wilkoff professor of electrical and computer engineering, and professor of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said government participation has been important to developing the community of universities, community colleges and companies that NAMII has been able to create and is crucial for any future institutes.

    "The government has to stick with this for a while," Fedder said. "It is like pulling out one leg in the three-legged stool. We need the government as a partner."

    There is some recent momentum on that front. A bipartisan, bicameral bill was introduced just before Congress' August recess to provide $600 million to authorize NNMI. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in the Senate, S. 1468, and in the House by Reps. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), H. 2996. Blunt and Brown included an amendment in the Senate 2014 budget to support the institutes back in February as well.

    Although tax reform is still the top issue for its members, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is working with these policymakers, as well as the White House, to move the NNMI bill forward, according to Brian Raymond, NAM's director of technology policy.

    "It's been a great relationship on both sides of the aisle. Everyone has the growth of manufacturing in mind," Raymond said. "Frankly, it looks like it is a pretty good bill."

    The issue of technology and innovation runs through all sectors, including energy, defense and health — and the manufacturers are at the forefront, Raymond said.

    "This has been around for a long time, but more and more so, manufacturers are becoming the face of these issues," he added.

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