3-D print advances may create more jobs

An innovative process used to make three-dimensional product prototypes is poised to enter the mass market, and local leaders are working to bring part of a new federal center for the technology to Dayton.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, is expected to become a $3.7 billion global industry by 2015, more than doubling its current $1.7 billion value, according to Wohlers Associates, an independent consulting firm. Industry growth is expected to surpass $6.5 billion by 2019.

Additive manufacturing is the process of creating solid objects from a digital file by printing thin layers of material one on top of another. It is almost the opposite of conventional machining, which sculpts or shapes objects by removing material.

Advances in the technology are establishing a new market for on-demand, mass customization manufacturing.

The biggest economic opportunity is using 3-D printing to manufacture actual products in plastic, metal and composite materials, said Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates. Currently, the technology is being used to print production parts for Boeing aircraft, as well as orthopedic implants, designer jewelry and custom braces for teeth.

SelectTech Services Corp.’s advanced manufacturing facility in Springfield last year produced a 3-D printed model airplane that can take off and land on its own landing gear. The Centerville-based company provides engineering and technical services mainly to the Department of Defense.

Declining hardware costs are creating demand for low-cost personal 3-D printer systems. New desktop fabrication websites such as Shapeways and Cubify allow consumers to design, sell and buy 3-D printed products online.

“I think it is going to become very, very big and that it is just a matter of time before we see the next Facebook or Google develop out of this,” Wohlers said.

The University of Dayton Research Institute is part of a statewide consortium of Ohio companies and organizations that are vying to win a federal pilot institute on additive manufacturing, said Brian Rice, head of UDRI’s Multi-Scale Composites and Polymers division. UDRI operates a reverse engineering and rapid prototyping facility with 3-D part scanning and printing capabilities.

President Obama announced the pilot institute in March as part of a $1 billion plan for a network of 15 “Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation” around the nation, serving as hubs that help manufacturers and encourage domestic investment.

Up to $45 million in federal funding has been made available for the pilot institute, which will support the Departments of Defense, Energy and other federal agencies, according to the Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office.

A federal call for proposals is expected in mid-May. If awarded, the institute would be led by EWI (Edison Welding Institute) in Columbus, with various clusters around the nation. The center’s polymeric cluster would be located in Dayton, Rice said.

Federal officials said additive manufacturing has the potential to minimize the need for tooling, compress supply chains and reduce waste. The technology also can produce novel components and complex structures that can’t be made cost effectively using conventional casting, molding and forging processes.

“I can build designs on my machines that can’t be built if you are going with traditional methods of tooling,” said Ben Staub, president of Bastech, a Dayton company that provides rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing services.

Bastech does close to $2 million in annual business, much of which involves 3-D printed prototypes or low-volume parts production for the aerospace industry. The use of 3-D printers to produce parts direct to manufacturing is continuing to grow, Staub said.

Meeting the expected industry growth will require technicians who can produce 3-D computer models “because that is what is required to run these machines,” Wohlers said.

Sinclair Community College’s Advanced Integrated Manufacturing Center has a 3-D printer that is used by both Sinclair and University of Dayton students, said Adam Murka, a college spokesman.

“We are in the process of aligning ourselves with different technical colleges throughout the state so that they would be able to take advantage of it,” he said.

In 2010, Staub spun off Rapid Directions Inc., a company that sells 3-D printer systems and associated materials. RDI’s revenues this year could approach $4 million, depending on its fourth-quarter sales, he said.

Wohlers said 3-D printers that can produce industry-standard parts range in price from $15,000 to more than $1 million, depending on their quality and sophistication.

RDI sells a hobbyist-level printer kit for $1,500, Staub said.

Cubify, a division of 3D Systems, started taking pre-orders last month for the Cube, a home color 3-D printer that sells for $1,299. It prints using ABS plastic at 25-thousands-of-an-inch layers up to a height, width and depth of 5.5 inches.

“I bet it won’t be too many years away where it’s going to be in Best Buy for $300 or $400,” Staub said.

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