A Talk with Additive Manufacturing Pioneer Slade Gardner

NILES, Ohio – Backpacking in the mountains inspired Slade Gardner to engage in a lifelong pursuit of exploration. 

In his younger years, that meant space travel. “I wanted to be an astronaut,” Gardner told The Business Journal Tuesday.  “I wanted a career in technology and I wanted to go to space.”

While he never made it to the outer limits, this quest led him into the study of advanced materials. “Advanced materials led me into advanced manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing gave me opportunities to explore additive manufacturing.”

Gardner spoke with The Business Journal as part of its podcast series that will air March 24. He is the keynote speaker at today’s Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber annual meeting at the Eastwood Events Center.

Fresh out of graduate school with a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech, Gardner landed a job at Lockheed Martin’s skunk works, where he joined a task force entrusted to develop new methods of building aircraft. It was a directive from the company’s president that opened the doors for his work in additive manufacturing. 

“His direction was beautiful,” Gardner recalled.  “He said, ‘pour me an airplane.’”

Additive manufacturing is a process in which a digital design of a component or object is transferred to a machine that is able to dispense material through a nozzle and build the part from the ground up.

After exploring a range of options, Gardner said that the team arrived at large-scale titanium additive manufacturing to produce components for fighter jets. 

Gardner noted that while 3D printing has been used for prototyping since the 1980s, additive manufacturing is a more intricate process that is fairly recent.

“Additive manufacturing began its honest adoption in the very late 1990s and the early 2000s,” he said.

A turning point in his career, however, came when he purchased a couple of industrial robots and met local businessman Chuck George, president of Strangepresse, a portfolio company at the Youngstown Business Incubator. It was George who sold him the first extruder for his robots.

“We began paving new ground,” Gardner said. “We started this large format polymer additive manufacturing capability, and this was 2005-2006 time frame.  It’s an industry today. Chuck and I were the first to do that.”

Gardner’s partnership with George eventually brought him into contact with Mike Garvey, president of Center Street Technologies in Youngstown, which today houses one of the largest 3D printers in the world. 

Today, Gardner is president of Big Metal Additive, based in Denver.  “We have a hybrid additive manufacturing process that is unique in the world,” he said.

The company’s equipment combines both additive manufacturing and machining, and uses a proprietary process that improves the quality and intricacy of its products.

Currently, the aerospace industry is leading the drive toward commercial use of additive manufacturing, Gardner said. “There is still plenty of work to do,” he said.

He said it takes a sizable investment to educate a workforce to use this technology, and big aerospace contractors have the deep pockets to make these commitments in both its people and equipment.  

“Every discipline is involved in additive,” he said. “We need people of all background and educational skills and capabilities now because the additive market is growing so fast.”

You can listen to Slade Gardner’s entire discussion about additive manufacturing on The Business Journal’s podcast scheduled to air on March 24. 

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