Printing the future: New factory technology is reshaping America’s industrial economy

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DEVENS, Mass., Sept 21 (Reuters) – The giant machines churning out metal parts on the floor of this factory don’t thump or rattle – or make any other noise typically associated with heavy manufacturing.

They hum.

“It looks like a data center here,” said John Hart, co-founder of VulcanForms, a 3D printing startup that grew out of his research at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offers insight into how whose Biden administration wants to reshape America’s industrial economy.

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VulcanForms, which recently raised $355 million in venture capital, exemplifies the type of manufacturing – cutting-edge, clean, futuristic – that must thrive to achieve this ambition.

A flurry of government initiatives, including billions earmarked for semiconductor fabs and other cutting-edge technologies, has raised the profile of the fab sector in ways few thought possible. not so long. Some suggest that the United States is on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance, aided by what is emerging as a de facto industrial policy, an approach to economic development widely used in many parts of the world but largely absent in the United States where free-marketers who see it because picking winners and losers has long kept it at bay.

Now even many Republicans whose opposition to such “central planning” strategies have long been a hallmark of the party have thrown their hats into this ring following Donald Trump’s ascendancy as leader and his shameless “America First” vision.

Bitter partisanship has kept many of them critical of Biden’s evolutionary approach, but since Trump’s appearance on the scene, they’ve embraced iterations of their own, such as backing millions in public funds. for FoxConn’s failing high-tech factory in Wisconsin.

VulcanForms builds metal parts by layering and fusing materials bit by bit – rather than cutting them from blocks of metal or stamping them in metal foundries.

Hence the felted production floor. Each of the 10 machines lined up at the VulcanForms factory gathers 150 separate laser beams into a sealed box, where a mechanical gantry cycles back and forth at high speed, depositing layers no thicker than a human hair as it forms parts. . The factory made everything from medical implants and gun suppressors to tire molds and computer cooling devices. VulcanForms supplies parts for a dozen defense programs, including the F3 Joint Strike Fighter jet.

Greg Reichow, a former Tesla Inc. manufacturing leader and general partner of Eclipse Ventures, the private equity firm that invested in VulcanForms, said factories like this should help avoid shocks from supply chain issues seen over the past two years, when many manufacturers struggled to obtain parts from overseas factories during the pandemic.

“You can build parts for phones one day, parts for aerospace the next,” Reichow said, “which dramatically increases manufacturing efficiency and speed.”

PARTS POLICIES

Certainly, the US approach to bolstering industries such as additive manufacturing falls far short of the overall policies of a competitor like China. US policies remain more piecemeal – targeting funding that could easily disappear under a future administration – and held back by investor expectations from the US private sector. American investors generally demand higher returns on investment than their counterparts in other parts of the world, which limits the extent to which even generous government subsidies can guide decisions about new factories.

The Biden administration announced in May an initiative with five major manufacturers, including Honeywell International Inc. and Raytheon Technologies Corp., to encourage the use of additive technology among small and medium-sized suppliers to these companies. The program, dubbed Additive Manufacturing Forward, is voluntary and includes a commitment from major companies to help train their suppliers’ workers to use the new technology.

Additive manufacturing fits with the administration’s promise to promote “green” industries, since the technology can reduce the cost of materials by 90% and cut energy consumption in half.

But this is still a relatively narrow segment. Additive manufacturing was once considered too slow, expensive or imprecise for full-fledged production in factories. But as the technology advanced, more and more companies started using it to manufacture finished parts. General Electric Co., for example, uses 3D printers to produce fuel injectors that go into the engines of Airbus and Boeing planes.

The 3D printing market in North America is estimated at $3.1 billion, although it is expected to grow nearly 20% per year for the rest of this decade, according to a study by Grand View Research, a market research and consulting company.

VulcanForms grew out of a 2013 additive manufacturing graduate course at MIT, taught by Hart and where Martin Feldman – the company’s CEO – was a student. Feldman said GE’s announcement of nozzle manufacturing was one of the things that inspired him to believe the technology was about to take a leap forward.

VulcanForms is unique among 3D printing companies in that it builds its own proprietary machines – which it will not sell to other producers – and uses them to manufacture parts for its customers.

“Making parts is a much better business than selling machines,” said Hart, who added that by outsourcing production to VulcanForms, a customer gets the benefits of 3D printing without having to invest in new technology and to hire qualified people to use unknown machines.

The company is growing rapidly and plans to double the number of 3D printing machines at the Devens factory by the end of this year.

The company also recently purchased a nearby machine shop that uses conventional machinery to fabricate metal parts – a recognition that many parts requested by customers will require processing beyond simple 3D printing, such as polishing finished parts.

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Reporting by Timothy Aeppel; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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