About 20 miles east of Pittsburgh, the former heart of the nation’s steel industry, a small company called ExOne is churning out a new generation of stainless steel boat propellers, oil pump parts and doorknobs.
But there are no clanging hammers, wheezing presses or even computer -controlled milling machines.
Instead, a dozen 3-D printers quietly stitch together industrial parts by meticulously spreading hundreds or thousands of layers of powdered metal onto a canvas until they form three-dimensional shapes.
The machines look and function like document printers. They run automatically. A lone operator occasionally adds powder, programs the design of a new part into a computer or removes the finished object.
This minimalist factory exemplifies the latest chapter of the industrial revolution, one that could make U.S. manufacturing more competitive globally and could bring more jobs back to the United States.
Just as it transformed music, TV and books, digital technology is poised to reinvent a sector that might seem immune from the ethereality of digital’s ones and zeros: manufacturing.
While 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been used since the late 1980s to make prototypes, it’s increasingly cranking out limited runs of actual parts for products as printing speeds increase and product quality improves.
Part production made up nearly a quarter of the $1.7 billion in sales of 3-D printing products and services last year, twice 2007’s share , according to Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm. By 2019, part making is expected to constitute 80% of the industry’s $6.9 billion in revenue.
Some of the increase can be traced to the growing ranks of entrepreneurs and hobbyists who are buying a relatively new class of printers that cost $2,000 or less to make jewelry, toys and other knickknacks. But the manufacturing industry accounts for most of the surge, Wohlers says. The number of industrial printers sold annually by the top two makers — Stratasys and 3D Systems — has more than doubled since 2005.
Since just a few employees run dozens of printers — vs. several hundred or thousands of workers in traditional factories — some experts say the technology can neutralize the low-cost labor advantage that countries such as China and India enjoy over the U.S. That, along with 3-D printing’s ability to accommodate quick product launches, is expected to accelerate a nascent “reshoring” trend that has seen a growing number of manufacturers bring some production back to the U.S. (continued…)
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