The Department of Defense & Youngstown Business Incubator Weigh In on 3D Printing in the US

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As additive manufacturing continues to see increased use around the globe, national strategies for adoption of the technology are becoming a bigger focus for governments seeking to ensure that they are not left behind in the next industrial revolution. With support and funding from the government, efforts have a better chance for expanding and disrupting manufacturing, and for keeping the national industry relevant on a global scale. In the United States, efforts in advancing additive manufacturing are spearheaded by America Makes, the national accelerator for 3D printing. The institute celebrated its fifth anniversary this week, marking a milestone in advances. Ahead of the birthday festivities, I had the opportunity to sit down with America Makes’ Executive Director, Rob Gorham, to learn more about his thoughts on the accomplishments of the last five years and his vision for the next five years and beyond. Bringing additional perspective to the table at the party were representatives from many of the foundational members of the national effort in additive manufacturing, and I also appreciated the time to talk to a representative from the US Department of Defense and Barb Ewing, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator.

America Makes was the first of what is now a list of 14 linked institutes that make up Manufacturing USA; 8 of these 14 were established by the Department of Defense (DoD). The representative present at the event explained that what was important to the DoD in establishing these institutes was “addressing critical needs in a way that is also commercially useful,” creating technology that can be both “useful for a warfighter and the technology you see in everyday life.”

“National security and economic security are inextricably linked together,” the DoD representative told me.

Underlying his views on the entire effort was the thread of realizability; technological advances for their own sake will not ultimately be of use, they must be created to be put into actual use. While much of the focus here typically remains on additive manufacturing as part of the broader manufacturing industry, the DoD is, unsurprisingly, primarily concerned with the defense aspects of its application. Aerospace and defense are one of the four main areas of focus Gorham had noted for America Makes’ initiatives, alongside automotive, medical, and energy.

“Manufacturing punches above its weight in return to the community, to the nation,” he explained. “It provides jobs, products, technology to the warfighter. We want to ensure our warfighters never fight in a fair fight, that they will always come out on top.”

We are increasingly seeing adoption of additive manufacturing among the US’ armed forces, including applications in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard; advances made in 3D printing technology can promote better in-the-field supply chains, among other key advantages. As America Makes continues to grow, furthering public-private partnerships encouraging and developing applications for additive manufacturing, the DoD is keeping an eye on these advances.

“The challenge as these institutes mature is ensuring they’re sustainable,” the representative said. “They’re all public-private partnerships, mostly more than a 1:1; that is, if the government provides $70 million, industry and education provide more than $70 million. The neat thing is public and private operations working together to serve common problems.”

He continued of America Makes, “From our standpoint, five years is not very long. But it’s significant because America Makes is coming off the original agreement, which was for five years. That’s a milestone in maturity. There’s no doubt there’s still a long way to go.”

Looking to the national scope of additive manufacturing, compared on a global scale, the representative noted that the US is still behind where it could be. The United States has historically been a leader in manufacturing advances, but other nations’ support from their governments has been giving them an advantage in developing their 3D printing strategies and technologies.

“The amount the United States is investing pales in comparison to other countries; they outspend, and this is new and novel for the US,” he said.

In addition to needing to enhance investment into technological development, the DoD representative came back as well to a point increasingly in focus around the global additive manufacturing industry: training needs.

“Besides technological development, there’s workforce development; it does no good to have the best tech if there’s no one to use it. A key in all these institutes is that they get best practices from each other, and this is something I hope we continue for quite some time. Or else we are doomed to be a service economy. To make money, we have to make something,” he told me.

As we look at the idea of ‘making something’ — after all, a phrase seen throughout the America Makes HQ is that “When America Makes, America Works” — the choice to locate operations in Youngstown, Ohio comes into play as well. This area of Ohio was part of what was previously known as the Rust Belt, due to deep roots in steel and other traditional manufacturing operations, but is coming to be known as the Tech Belt as manufacturing becomes more advanced and an experienced workforce adapts to new technologies. The Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), located a short distance from America Makes, well understands the makeup of the area and what it takes for businesses to be successful both in this region and on a national scale.

“When you look at the impact America Makes has had on the Northeast Ohio/Southwest Pennsylvania region, the story there is probably different than nationally,” YBI CEO Ewing told me. “Nationally, and internationally, there’s no question there’s been progress in making the technology faster, smarter, easier to adopt. In this region, we’re getting individual companies to understand adopting in industrial applications.”

She continued of the region, “I don’t think there’s another part of the country with the expertise here to assist in adopting additive manufacturing. Hands-down, no one else can do what we do.”

YBI has been paying keen attention to what it takes for businesses to succeed, and Ewing explained that in addition to America Makes and the “tapestry of universities” involved in advancing additive manufacturing, another asset they have identified is the role of SMEs. 2700 SMEs, she noted, are potentially a part of this direct supply chain, engaging with companies on either side of the equation. Existing materials companies could make materials for additive, as one example, or companies using sand core casting could examine the potential for 3D printing in these applications.

Of America Makes, Ewing noted that “We look at this as what it is — a model for a startup in a new way to operate.” Additive manufacturing requires a different mindset, and different technical parameters, for operation in any business environment. Having a model to look at the entire work flow can be an invaluable resource to companies looking to build around 3D printing.

“This model, this partnership platform, with funding for projects like these, is so atypical for how the government typically operates. Making technological accomplishments while building the organization has been truly phenomenal,” she said.

Looking ahead to the next five years for the accelerator program, she pointed to hopes in further expansion of the Tech Belt as home to operations for both new and established businesses.

“I hope to see this region as a place where additive manufacturing companies want to locate for launch in the US market,” she said, “where they can leverage relationships to develop a customer base and establish a supply chain.”

For its part, YBI is working on expanding relationships as well. We discussed several partnerships in the works, including with multinationals heralding from Israel, Slovenia, and more countries around the world that might benefit from operations in the Tech Belt. In addition to partnership opportunities to be pursued with YBI and fostered by America Makes, the region offers a skilled workforce with a strong background in manufacturing, as well as tech support and other benefits.

The growth of additive manufacturing in the United States will only continue with ongoing support on a national level; the country must stand behind initiatives set to advance adoption. Through public-private partnerships such as those in the spotlight with America Makes and encouraged by the DoD and YBI, the conversation can continue to expand with a broader range of voices participating — a true means to growth. To date, the US does indeed still lag on several measures in support and opportunity; still, there is great opportunity for this nation built on a foundation of manufacturing to revisit those roots and expand them into the next generations of technologies, reshoring previously domestic operations and bringing in further participation from multinationals.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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