America Makes Celebrates 5 Years Advancing 3D Printing: Exclusive Interview with Executive Director Rob Gorham

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Established in 2012, America Makes is the United States’ national accelerator for additive manufacturing and 3D printing, leading the way in dedicated public-private partnerships in technology research, discovery, creation, and innovation. To celebrate its fifth anniversary, on Wednesday, August 16th the institute held a birthday party in honor of half a decade of growth in the business around additive manufacturing.

Rob Gorham, who has been part of the America Makes team since 2013 and became the Executive Director in May 2017, and Founding Director Ralph Resnick led the gathering in a spirited rendition of ‘happy birthday’ over an appropriately-candled birthday cake.

Ahead of the kickoff to the afternoon’s festivities, though, I sat down with Gorham to discuss his perspective on the past five years of America Makes, as well as a look ahead into his vision for the future for the accelerator.

Gorham introduces himself and touches on some of his thoughts in his office at America Makes:

As Gorham and I talked about the institute, he started there, with that nomenclature, as “institute” in itself can be a word that throws off some understanding of what exactly America Makes is all about.

“There are some misconceptions when people hear ‘institute’,” Gorham told me. “For us, it’s about bringing people together, doing projects that will further adoption, specifically here in the US.”

He continued, “We like to think of ourselves as bridges, you’ll notice a lot of pictures of bridges around this office. This is a very sincere and serious message. There’s a lot going on and we want to bring it all together. There is an ecosystem of islands, and we bring them together. We get equipment, staff where appropriate — the key here is an emphasis on deep partnerships across ecosystems.”

One of the many bridges at America Makes

Sticking to the three Cs he had underscored at RAPID + TCT shortly after his appointment as Executive Director in May, Gorham noted that America Makes seeks to Convene, Coordinate, and Catalyze. The intention is to bring together designers, engineers, and all those operating throughout the additive manufacturing workforce, looking at not only how to enhance training, but to educate on how to make business decisions. America Makes keys in on projects that “truly require collaborative solutions.”

These collaborations are, as is very important to the mission of America Makes, between both public and private entities. As the flagship institute for Manufacturing USA, America Makes was the first of the currently 14 linked Manufacturing Innovation Institutes that make up the larger initiative; America Makes is managed and operated by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM). During the course of the event, I spoke as well to a representative from the US Department of Defense, which established 8 of the 14 institutes, who noted that “the neat thing is public and private operations working together to serve common problems.”

These common problems, Gorham explained, are common even among disparate verticals with which America Makes works. While, for example, Johnson & Johnson, NASA, and the US Army may all describe a specific problem they feel is unique to them, it often comes down to the fact that the application is unique — but the issue is more universal and can be addressed by a collaborative approach.

“The problems are the same, they’re just describing them differently,” Gorham said. “With purpose, we can identify where the real problems are, and with purpose, find out how to solve them. We’re working on what you might call a decoder ring, or a framework, or common language, for how we define these problems, and then coordinate solutions.

A ton of members tell us that they appreciate that we have created a neutral ground for collaboration. The last thing you do in business is call a competitor and talk where you’re putting your money. We create an environment where they can collaborate without threats.”

Rob Gorham in his office

America Makes is focused on the national plan for advancing additive manufacturing, keeping its sights on projects based in and benefiting the US. It isn’t looking only to big players, though; as Gorham noted, manufacturing isn’t only Ford and GM, but the entire supply chain they rely on, including many small businesses — and all these operations should be part of the conversation.

The idea of catalyzing takes us into a look at the project portfolio, which has grown to be an approximately $100 million portfolio made up of hundreds of participants addressing problems in 3D printing. Gorham noted that this involves the “best and brightest tech minds and workforce, sharing the risk of solving problems.” That workforce is critical to advances, and we’re currently seeing a  “fantastic movement to reinvigorate the perception of manufacturing” that America Makes is looking to support through a realistic take on initiatives intended to support, train, and grow the workforce.

“There can be a disconnect in how people think of manufacturing and how people take advancement of additive manufacturing or 3D printing; the whole workflow is sometimes misunderstood. It’s that idea that everything can look like a nail when you only have a hammer,” Gorham explained.

“This industry needs to be responsibly understood. We need to see ROI calculators, use cases, application demonstrations — we need to solidify thinking on how to understand that 3D printing is part of the toolbox, not the whole toolbox.”

America Makes has been working with four major sectors so far — aerospace and defense, automotive, energy (including oil and gas), and medical — and has been seeing work done in these areas increasingly “bleeding into other opportunities.” As technology such as modeling and simulation, and topology optimization become more developed in these verticals, their use is spreading into additional applications. Gorham noted recent conversations in the construction and civil industries, for example, as codes being developed may extend into the civil space and design optimization could inform the structure of rebar in concrete.

“They’re trying to solve a problem, and we can say we’ve already solved it,” he said. “We need to clearly articulate what we’ve been doing and how it can be supplied. Our role is to support the growth in the industry.”

The birthday party in full swing

While the first five years for America Makes focused largely on establishing and extending the project portfolio, Gorham shared that the vision for the next five years will have a “tremendous focus on partnership.”

“The first five years were all about money and investments, about moving forward and really building a community with partners we have, with other areas inviting partners in,” he said.

Among the areas in focus going forward are the recently introduced @Program and development of workforce and education. The @Program, introduced at RAPID this year, highlights the thought that “more important than you writing a check is having a conversation,” as the program encourages member engagement and offsets annual membership costs via cost share credits that can be earned through activities in five main categories (engage, represent, interact, advance, amplify). Of the @Program, Gorham explained:

“There has been tremendous support of people wanting to be part of it. What’s cool is these businesses with additive tell people they’re doing it, and have the option to join the community of partners trying to do the same thing. It makes the technology more useful today than it was yesterday. The @Program allows for exposure, and for being exposed to approaches to proper economics.

The more voices are in the conversation, the more power the industry can take advantage of.”

Looking to teaching the present and future workforce, Gorham touched on ideas for learners from kindergarten through long-term professional. While initiatives for K-5 students will likely remain limited, as youths of these ages have needs best addressed by their parents, students in grades 6-8 see more intellectual curiosity blooming and can benefit from more hands-on learning. By high school, students “are sponges,” and Gorham noted that efforts will focus on students in grades 9-12. Technical colleges are also “big-time important,” as are apprenticeships, journeymanships, and other on-the-job training work. As America Makes continues to look more to dedicated training efforts, we’re sure to hear of more partnerships and projects emerging.

America Makes will also continue work toward establishing industry standards, as there is major understanding needed and developing around standards.

Yesterday’s anniversary event in Youngstown was a well-attended birthday party complete with cake, balloons — and many America Makes partners. The space was filled with conversations and anticipation of what the institute can bring to manufacturing in the US as it continues to mature and develop. Conversations with the DoD and the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) provided a further look into what we can expect to see as this accelerator grows into its next five years of growth focusing on 3D printing.

[All photos/videos: Sarah Goehrke]


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