Initiatives Funded by America Makes Lead to Commercialization

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Brett Conner peers into the window of one of the smaller 3-D printers in Youngstown State University’s additive manufacturing lab. About 90 miles northwest at a small company in Avon Lake, a row of four industrial-sized 3-D printers create parts for the aerospace and other industries.

Meanwhile, researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland examine how the properties of materials change during the 3-D printing process and how to successfully reuse them. And at the University of Pittsburgh scientists are engaged in studies that could revolutionize medical implant devices through the use of additive manufacturing.

All of these projects are knitted together with some of the largest private industrial partners in the country through America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in downtown Youngstown.

America Makes is the first of the Obama Administration’s networks of advanced manufacturing hubs, announced in 2012. Since its inception, it has helped to fund 50 projects that have leveraged at least $47.8 million toward research and development to advance this technology. Of that total, American Makes has committed $21.5 million toward these new projects while private partners are investing another $26.3 million, according to the institute’s data.

Among America Makes’ partners is YSU. In September, the university finished a renovation of its Center for Innovation in Additive Manufacturing where students and faculty have engaged in additive manufacturing projects that range from aerospace components to a 3-D printed model of buildings in downtown Youngstown. (See our cover.)

“Since the founding of America Makes, about 200 jobs have been created in Ohio related to additive manufacturing,” says YSU’s Conner, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering. “We know there are local businesses – small businesses – that have had opportunity to increase revenue and work with major companies that they would never have had the chance to engage without America Makes being here.”

One of those small companies is Humtown Products in Columbiana. In 2014, Humtown was awarded funding through America Makes to apply 3-D printing to manufacture sand cores for the foundry industry.

“It’s unlocked so much potential,” says Brandon Lamoncha, sales manager at Humtown. “We’ve taken casting times that used to take months down to weeks.”

America Makes, headquartered at 236 W. Boardman St., serves as a conduit among government agencies, the private sector, academia and research institutions. The organization has helped to forge partnerships between small companies and some of the biggest names in industry – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Honeywell, General Electric, Raytheon – while engaging some of the top research and academic institutions in the world.

Its offices serve as a showroom of some of the latest additive manufacturing technology on the market while its staff helps coordinate research projects through the 165 members of America Makes. The organization is managed through the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, a nonprofit in Blairsville, Pa.

“America Makes has brought a lot of attention to the industry,” says Tracy Albers, president and chief technology officer of Rapid Prototype & Manufacturing LLC, or rp+m, in Avon Lake and a founding member of the organization. The company is a contract manufacturer of 3-D printed parts and conducts materials research for several industries relative to additive manufacturing.

“It’s allowed us to work directly with companies such as Boeing and Lockheed, which for a very small company has inherent value in itself,” Albers says. Her company, which employs 14, is also working with major research centers such as Case Western Reserve University and the University of Dayton Research Center.

Tom Santelle, strategic program director at rp+m, says his focus is on developing novel materials that can be used for 3-D commercial parts used in aerospace and other industries. “We take them from early lab scale to commercial readiness,” he says.

The Humtown project is led by the Youngstown Business Incubator and includes partners such as the University of Northern Iowa, YSU, Janney Capital Markets, ExOne Co., and the American Foundry Society. The consortium’s effort secured $1.3 million in funding and stands to change the way traditional sand molds are created to serve the foundry industry, Humtown’s Lamoncha says.

Additive manufacturing – that is, building a part with material layer-by-layer through the use of a 3-D printer – reduces time and the cost of many products in the foundry industry, Lamoncha says. The process dispenses with the conventional method of creating the pattern of a part first, then using powerful presses to force sand around it to form a mold box. Instead, the sand core is shipped to customers or foundries that pour molten metal into the mold and cast a finished part.

“We forgo the pattern process and just print the sand core,” Lamoncha says. “We can develop novel engine designs that couldn’t be done in the past. “

Humtown Products has worked with global original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, as demand for 3-D printed molds increases. Recently, Humtown signed off as a contributor to a patent for a novel engine design that uses 3-D printed sand cores. “We didn’t realize how quick it would grow,” Lamoncha says, “and we’re really just scratching the surface.”

What sets the Humtown project apart from others funded by America Makes is that it calls for the direct application of 3-D technology to the foundry industry, elaborates Barb Ewing, chief operating officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator. “We’ve engaged with at least one OEM,” she says, “and the work is valuable enough that we’ll find ways to continue after funding is closed.”

The incubator is working in conjunction with YSU to purchase a sand core printer – the one Humtown uses now is at the University of Northern Iowa – to support growth in this industry.

“There is such long-term opportunity in this market to really transform the production process,” Ewing observes.

These opportunities led to the incubator’s decision to purchase the former Vindicator building and convert it to space for additive manufacturing startup companies.

Critical to accelerating additive manufacturing throughout the country is new research devoted to materials testing, development of new materials conducive to 3-D printing, and certifying that these materials comply with industry standards for commercial use.

At Avon Lake’s rp+m, for example, much of its work with America Makes is dedicated to researching materials and processes from which to print components for aerospace and other industries, Albers says.

“One of our projects last year was working with companies such as Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and NASA,” she says. “The idea was to take input from those large OEMs, take input from material suppliers, and put it into a data package. Then, these OEMs could use that data for moving forward in additive manufacturing technology.”

Indeed, collaborative research and development is the primary thrust behind America Makes, with the ultimate goal of commercializing some of the intellectual property generated, project partners say.

“The most significant development at America Makes recently is its decision to actively pursue commercialization of the projects that it’s funded,” says Michael Garvey, president of M-7 Technologies in Youngstown and a member of America Makes. “So, they’ve funded approximately $80 million of research and now there’s an effort to marry those discoveries with either existing or other discoveries to create commercialization of those technologies,” Garvey says. “That’ll be the nucleus to job creation in this industry.”

At the University of Pittsburgh, for example, Prashant Kumta is the lead on a project funded two years ago that has developed new alloys used in additive manufacturing to produce medical devices such as implants, bone plates, tracheal stents and scaffolds.

Kumta, a professor who holds the Edward L. Weidlein Chair at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, says his team has created an alloy composed of magnesium and iron that responds better when the alloy interacts with bodily fluids and cells.

“We’ve been able to use additive manufacturing using these alloys and show that they have the right mechanical properties to match the bone,” Kumta says.

Through additive manufacturing, the makers of implants can use data from a patient’s CT Scan – a knee, for example – and transfer that image to an electronic file.

“We can then print the part to match the design and dimensions of the patient,” Kumta says.

In this case, the alloy is delivered in powder form and set in a bed inside a jet 3-D printer. Rollers push the powder into place as a printer head moves back and forth across the powder bed, automatically dispensing a binding agent that fuses the alloy together in programmed points, creating the component.

Once the binding agent is administered, the print bed is removed and then sintered, exposing the finished parts.

“The game changer is that we’ve developed these new alloys and have shown we can mimic the bone,” Kumta says.

Still, additive manufacturing can be costly, especially in regards to using materials in powder form. On average, just a fraction of a single powder bed is used to create a part or a series of different parts. The catch? The properties of the unused powder change after undergoing 3-D printing and cannot be reused in that state. The objective is finding a way to recycle this powder for reuse in additive manufacturing.

Case Western University, along with project leader University of Notre Dame and two orthopedic device manufacturers, is working to solve this problem through a program that America Makes funds, says Jim McGuffin-Cawley, chairman of Case Western’s materials science and engineering department.

“The use of additive manufacturing in orthopedics is not new,” McGuffin-Cawley says, noting the industry has used the technology over the past decade to manufacture custom parts for patients. The trick is finding ways to reduce the cost of production by reducing the cost of materials.

“Most of this powder is rather expensive,” he says. “You want to take the part, remove it from the powder, take the excess powder, and with a minimal amount of processing end up with powder that is similar to what you started with.”

Case Western is conducting research to better understand how the properties of material powder are altered once they’re exposed to the additive manufacturing process, McGuffin-Cawley says.

Determining this information would allow the consortium to develop a system to reuse the excess material, thereby reducing production costs.

“You want to have confidence that the powder is not altered in a way that will compromise the part,” McGuffin-Cawley says.

Testing how specific 3-D printed components react to temperatures and stress is another important project Case Western is working on through America Makes, says John Lewandowski, professor of engineering and director of the university’s Advanced Manufacturing and Mechanical Reliability Center.

“We test a piece by breaking it,” Lewandowski says as he points to a small block of titanium that’s been 3-D printed and mounted inside a chamber. The titanium is connected with wires that deliver an electrical charge.

Lewandowski and other researchers monitor how the properties of the metal change undergoing this stress. “We want to compare a piece made this way with one that is made conventionally,” he explains.

Ultimately, the data will help shorten the certification process and establish new standards for products manufactured through 3-D printing for use in aerospace, automotive and biomedical applications.

“Here, we’re trying to link the properties with the process,” Lewandowski says.

America Makes helped bring together the team for this project that consists of five major companies – GE, Pratt & Whitney, Lockheed Martin, Bayer and Kennemetal. Collaborative projects such as this allow the group to share data, which benefits all of the partners. “That’s the idea,” Lewandowski says.

These partnerships are critical to the continued success and impact of America Makes, YSU’s Conner adds. Aside from working with small manufacturers, the university has forged research and development relationships with NASA, the University of Texas at El Paso, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

“We’re working with the University of Texas El Paso to use 3-D technology to make thermal management systems that can be incorporated into space vehicles,” Conner says. In this case, the objective is their manufacture for small “cube” satellites in partnership with the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

“For YSU, it’s a great advantage,” Conner says.

These projects create advantages and synergies throughout northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and the Mahoning Valley is in a great position to benefit, says the Youngstown Business Incubator’s Ewing.

The next step is examining how to create a regional cluster of companies that use this technology to its fullest potential and promote economic growth.

“We’re starting to see strong deal flow and startups for additive manufacturing companies,” she says. “It’s captured the imagination of this generation.”

Pictured: Jim McGuffin-Cawley of Case Western Reserve University holds metallic samples produced through additive manufacturing.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.