wind turbines (PEERA24602/Shutterstock.com)

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

We need a sweeping 3D printing agenda, now

At Sandia National Laboratories, an unusual thing has happened. Researchers 3D printed a massive mold for manufacturing wind turbine blades.

The project is a collaboration with the leading manufacturing laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and TPI Composites that aims to dramatically reduce the time and cost of developing new wind energy technology. Sandia has been in the wind business for four decades, and during that time it has found producing prototypes can be a real drain on time and resources. By 3D printing the 13-meter mold directly from a digital design, Sandia says it saved more than a year in production time.

The Lab's success is just one example of how government agencies and related organizations are increasingly using 3D printing for prototyping and parts production. As other countries embrace the technology at a pace that will soon match our own, 3D printing will become a stronger focus in the public sector.

3D printing comes of age

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing because it involves digitally layering materials over-and-over again to produce finished items, has been around for decades. It has been used by the various branches of the U.S. military to construct mission-critical parts on demand. It has also been used at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to create customized prosthetics for veterans. And several Food and Drug Administration centers have been busily qualifying various 3D-printed medical devices for public use, including surgical instruments  as well as orthopedic and cranial implants and dental restorations that can be individually made to fit perfectly to a person's body.

Until recently, the public sector’s embrace of 3D printing has been mild at best. This changed a few years ago when new printers were introduced and started producing quality parts exponentially faster at a fraction of the cost. Along the way, the types of materials used in these printers also expanded from solely plastics to include metals and concrete. As manufacturers express more interest in the technology, the palette of material properties continues to expand.

3D printing is poised to take off. The Wohler’s Report 2018 revealed that the additive manufacturing market grew 21 percent last year, exceeding $7.3 billion. Up to $6 trillion of the global economy could be disrupted and redistributed in the next decade due to the accelerating growth of 3D printing, according to a report by AT Kearney and HP. The role our government plays in this disruption depends on its desire to accelerate investment in this area in order to bring manufacturing back home.   

U.S. agencies committed but lagging  

The U.S. government will spur much of the market’s predicted growth. With 3D printing, the public sector can quickly manufacture needed parts locally, minimizing shipping costs and overstocked shelves. Additionally, continued advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence make it possible for teams of engineers and designers to tag and monitor finished 3D-printed parts in the field to determine how they perform over their lifespan. This, in turn, improves product design for higher reliability and longer mean time between failure.

Even with all of this value, the U.S. government is not investing in 3D printing as quickly as other nations. The U.S. still leads, but Korea, the United Kingdom and Germany are accelerating efforts and could outpace the U.S. within a few years, according to AT Kearney. Each of those countries has created a national roadmap or strategy for 3D printing and has implemented initiatives to foster its adoption. The most successful strategies to date have focused on workforce education and adopting new technology and incentives to build a 3D ecosystem.

The U.S. government is doing some of the same. The Department of Defense included 3D printing as a key capability in its 2018 budget recommendations. The very existence of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where impressive 3D printing research and experimentation is occurring, also demonstrates a genuine desire to compete in this game. Oak Ridge has recruited Tom Kurfess, the leading advanced-manufacturing academic out of Georgia Tech, to lead the Lab's efforts. To avoid losing 3D leadership, U.S. policymakers must take similar action by hiring the best and brightest to focus on this area critical to our economy.

Cementing our place in 3D printing’s future

Like the other nations mentioned, the U.S. should consider implementing a broader strategic 3D printing program that lays out a vision for the future. It should set specific strategic goals aimed at producing not only replacement parts but full production items the government needs.

We are already seeing examples of this. For instance, a Los Angeles-based startup called Relativity Space says it wants to revolutionize how rockets are made by 3D printing them. Oak Ridge researchers  3D printed a classic Shelby Cobra automobile at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility using the Big Area Additive Manufacturing machine. There are also discussions happening around everything from houses for homeless and vulnerable populations to submarines, surface ships and specialized  vehicles that deliver Navy SEALS to dangerous combat areas.

Much of this might seem like flights of fancy, but these discussions and demonstrations show real potential of 3D printing as it continues to evolve and become more affordable. It is time for the U.S. government to take bold action and put a sweeping plan in place to encourage public- and private-sector adoption of this promising technology. Anything less could result in the U.S. ceding advantages in this space to more determined nations.

About the Author

Tommy Gardner is chief technology officer for HP Federal.

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