Additive Manufacturing Intrigues Small Businesses

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Bill Hendricks, president of Professional Engine Systems Inc. in Canfield, joins a small group of interested spectators as they watch a demonstration of a laser sintering 3-D printer at America Makes in downtown Youngstown.

“I’ve been fascinated with this technology,” he says, as the large machine begins to “print” components through additive manufacturing, an automated process in which parts or products are built of materials — such as plastics – layer by layer from the ground up.

At first glance, there’s little correlation between Hendricks’ engine systems business – he provides service to generators and other engines — and additive manufacturing. However, as the business owner has learned more about the technology, he sees how it could help his company and its customers.

“These generators are getting older, and a lot of the items we replace are older and hard to find, or are not available,” Hendricks says. In some extreme cases, companies reliant upon backup power might need to replace an entire generator system – one that could cost $1 million, for example — when a component or part can’t be located or replaced.

However, additive manufacturing might solve this issue, Hendricks says. Should an older component break, 3-D printing technology would allow him to create an identical part by scanning the component, feed the data into a software program, and then replicate that part.

Because it’s likely cost-prohibitive for Professional Engine Systems to acquire its own upscale 3-D printer, Hendricks says, it would be more practical to contract with an institution or company that has the proper equipment to replicate an older, out-of-stock part. “After what we learned today, it would make sense to outsource to a printer,” he says. “We could just create the part.”

He’s become so enamored with the technology that he purchased a desktop 3-D printer for his 9-year-old nephew for Christmas. “It gets him away from video games,” Hendricks says.

He was among the participants who took part in a recent tutorial on additive manufacturing at America Makes. Darrell Wallace, assistant professor at Youngstown State University and the president of Assimilogic, a manufacturing consulting firm, gave the lecture.

Wallace describes additive manufacturing as “the most hyped technology that currently exists.” He quickly qualifies that statement by allowing that some of the hype is justified. “It’s challenging in that it’s different,” he explains. “It’s also terribly hyped and misunderstood. Is it going to replace traditional manufacturing? No.”

Additive manufacturing differs from more common “subtractive” manufacturing in that it creates a three-dimensional part or prototype by discharging material layer by layer onto a surface, creating that component. As the technology becomes more advanced, more materials could be used to manufacture highly complex products.

He points to high-profile projects such as the first 3-D printed car, spearheaded by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “Is it practical?” he asks rhetorically. “Not a chance,” he answers, because of the immense cost and time required to print such a vehicle.

Additive manufacturing today and in the near future serves as a means to augment traditional manufacturing, Wallace notes. However, over time, the technology does hold the potential to change how the world’s manufacturers go about creating new products and new materials.

Some of the traditional manufacturing processes used today – casting, for example – date back thousands of years, Wallace says. Modern machining techniques, he notes, emerged in the early 19th century. Considering the length of time that manufacturing processes and concepts have remained relatively unchanged, 3-D printing is a big deal.

And, 3-D printing is poised for growth over the next two years, according to the online market data site, Statista. In 2014, the size of the global market for 3-D printing, materials and associated services stood at $3.8 billion. By 2018, that market is expected to expand to $16.2 billion.

The trick is to use 3-D printing where it really makes sense, Wallace says. Additive manufacturing, he elaborates, does a manufacturer little good if its business relies on producing mass quantities of a specific product. That’s because the technology is comparatively slow versus an automated production line.

However, for markets that invite customization and smaller production runs that might require extensive tooling, 3-D printing makes more sense, Wallace says. “I can make it where I need it,” he says. “It’s also given rise to the individual entrepreneur. It could be a kid in a garage.”

Industries that involve tooling, customized manufacturing, testing for new products, producing small volumes, or use jigs or fixtures in their manufacturing processes are strong candidates for some type of additive manufacturing component, he notes.

The aerospace and biomedical industries, Wallace adds, already make good use of this technology. “We have printed things that are considered bionic organs,” he relates, such as hands. Hip replacements or knee replacements could be tailored to fit the patient, allowing for an improved recovery and better mobility.

“Customization equals value,” Wallace says. “People are willing to pay above and beyond to get that. We’re going to see that level of customization across a wide range of products.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.