New U.S. Institute Hopes to Put Its Stamp on Additive Manufacturing

The hardwood floors at the clean, high-tech home of the new National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) are a clear sign that this is not your father's factory.

Last week, the Obama Administration announced it was launching the institute, to be housed in renovated industrial space in Youngstown, Ohio, to help lead a renaissance in U.S. manufacturing. Academic scientists involved in the institute hope it will also send a message to students that, in the words of one researcher, "manufacturing is as cool as working for Google."

Often called 3D printing, additive manufacturing uses a combination of new technologies to make things by applying many thin layers. It uses less energy and material than traditional machining, which is done by cutting away materials. With additive manufacturing, a worker's hands are more likely to be tapping away at keyboards than sheathed in heavy work gloves. The days of a factory as a dark, dirty, and noisy place are long gone, says Gary Fedder, head of the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about what modern manufacturing is," says Fedder, a driving force behind NAMII. "Instead of sparks flying, these processes are computer-driven, and people need to learn those new skills."

CMU is one of 70 entities—small and large companies, universities, community colleges, and nonprofit organizations—that are part of NAMII. Last week the Department of Defense (DOD) chose the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM) in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, from among 13 applicants to manage the institute, which will tap talent from the tri-state area of northeast Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. DOD is putting up $30 million over 3 years, and four other federal agencies have promised to contribute another $15 million. Companies in the consortium have agreed to provide $40 million in matching funding.

The institute is the first tangible evidence of the Administration's plans, announced in March, to invest $1 billion on 15 institutes that would serve as regional centers of excellence across all sectors of manufacturing. Last month the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology strongly endorsed the concept in a report on how the country could regain its edge in advanced manufacturing. The proposal has made little headway in Congress, however, in part because of tight budgets and in part because of Republicans' traditional distaste for anything that smacks of industrial policy.

So instead of waiting for congressional approval, the White House gave the go-ahead this spring for DOD officials to hold a competition for a proof-of-concept institute that, Fedder says, "would show Congress that this idea can work." The competition was conducted in record time. Applicants had 35 days to submit their proposals, and 2 months later the winner was announced in a ceremony in Youngstown that featured the acting commerce secretary and other senior Administration officials.

That warp speed also helps Obama reinforce a campaign message that his Administration is working hard to create jobs. "This institute will help make sure that the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow take root not in places like China or India, but right here in the United States," Obama said in a statement about the award during a campaign swing through the Midwest.

NCDMM was created in 2003 to help the military manage its supply chain by lowering the cost and raising the quality of the billions of dollars of parts and systems it purchases every year. And while it was funded initially by a congressional earmark, the center is now self-supporting.

The new institute "is not a typical research center," says Ralph Resnick, president of NCDMM, which assembled the team that submitted the winning proposal. "Nobody is guaranteed any particular amount of money" from the contract, he explains. Instead, the institute will hold internal competitions to address problems that its governing board has identified as the most pressing needs facing the industry. In addition to supporting research at industrial and academic labs, each award will include a training component to help community colleges create certificate and 2-year degree programs to ensure that employers can find enough qualified workers to hire.

"The goal is for universities to work more closely with industry," Fedder says. "What the government wants is an entity to bridge the gap between applied research and turning something into a product. We know that what won’t work is a typical [National Science Foundation (NSF)] center, because there’s no productization and no money for companies to do any research."

Fedder, whose complex engineered systems institute is an outgrowth of an NSF engineering research center that closed 15 years ago, acknowledges that CMU and other universities are taking a calculated risk that their faculty members will find sufficient intellectual challenges in tackling problems to advance the technologies that underpin additive manufacturing. "The institute is a bet by universities that there will be interesting work to do, helping companies that are doing development," Fedder says. In terms of R&D, he says, "it's definitely big D."

Government agencies are also betting that the new institute can address important aspects of their mission. DOD has a vision of what Fedder calls "fast fabrication in units of one," including making equipment and parts on the battlefield that are tailored to the unique conditions facing its soldiers. "The [civilian] world may not be clamoring for those objects," Fedder says, but they are an important component in national security.

Additive manufacturing holds the promise of reducing material costs by up to 90% and cutting energy usage in half, according to a background statement from the Department of Energy (DOE) on its participation in the initiative. DOE, which already operates a manufacturing demonstration facility at its Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is giving the institute $5 million this year and has pledged another $5 million in 2013. The National Institute of Standards and Technology also hopes to contribute $5 million in 2013, in keeping with its mission to set industry standards for advanced manufacturing technologies. NSF expects to chip in $1 million.

But federal support won't be enough to ensure NAMII's success. What will ultimately matter most is industry's ability to incorporate innovative technologies into how it makes things faster, better, and at a lower cost. And that will depend on the skills of those on the shop floor.

That's why Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, was so eager to join the consortium, says Tracy Green, who heads the college’s advancement office. "Our community needs more jobs," Green says, citing the college's existing efforts to train people for local businesses working with microsystems. "Industry is asking for this type of help. But industry also has to be willing to pay for it. So what we offer has to be market-driven."