Printing the future: New factory tech reshapes the U.S. industrial economy

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DEVENS – The huge machines that churn out metal parts on this factory floor don’t pop or rattle – or make any other noises normally associated with heavy-duty manufacturing.

they hum.

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“It sounds like a data center in here,” said John Hart, co-founder of VulcanForms, a start-up 3D printing company that grew out of his research at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offers insight into how the Biden government works wants to transform the US industrial economy.

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VulcanForms, which recently raised $355 million in venture capital, is an example of the type of manufacturing – modern, clean, futuristic – that must thrive to achieve this goal.

A wave of government initiatives, including billions for semiconductor fabs and other advanced technologies, have raised the profile of the fab sector in ways few would have thought possible recently. Some suggest the United States is poised for a manufacturing renaissance, backed by de facto industrial policies, an approach to economic development that is widespread in many parts of the world but largely absent in the United States, where free market participants see this as picking winners and losers has long kept it in check.

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Now, even many Republicans, whose opposition to such “central planning” strategies has long been a defining party trait, have thrown their hats in this ring after the rise of Donald Trump as their leader and his uncompromising “America First” view.

Bitter partisanship has led many of them to criticize Biden’s evolving approach, but since Trump took the stage, they’ve embraced iterations of their own, like backing millions in public funds for FoxConn’s faltering high-tech Wisconsin plant.

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

Hence the subdued production hall. Each of the 10 machines lined up in the VulcanForms factory bundles 150 separate laser beams into a sealed box, inside which a mechanical gantry shuttles back and forth at high speed, depositing layers no thicker than a human hair as parts are formed are. The factory made everything from medical implants and silencers to tire molds and computer cooling equipment. VulcanForms supplies parts for a dozen defense programs including the F3 Joint Strike Fighter Jet.

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

“You can build phone parts one day, aerospace parts the next day,” Reichow said, “so that increases the efficiency and speed of manufacturing dramatically.”

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Certainly, the US approach to bolstering industries like additive manufacturing falls far short of the all-in policies of a competitor like China. US policy remains fragmented – targeting funding that could easily disappear under a future administration – and is being held back by US private sector investor expectations. US investors typically demand higher yields than their peers elsewhere in the world, which limits how much even generous government subsidies can steer decisions about new investments.

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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 those companies’ small and medium-sized suppliers. The program, called “Additive Manufacturing Forward,” is voluntary and includes a commitment by the major companies to train their suppliers’ employees in the use of the new technology.

Additive manufacturing is in line with the administration’s promise to promote “green” industries as the technology can cut material costs by 90% and halve energy consumption.

But it remains a relatively narrow segment. Additive manufacturing was once considered too slow, expensive, or imprecise for full-scale factory production. But as the technology has advanced, more and more companies have started using it to produce finished parts. For example, General Electric Co. uses 3D printers to make fuel nozzles that plug into the engines of Airbus and Boeing jets.

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The 3D printing market in North America is valued at $3.1 billion, although it is projected to grow at nearly 20% per year through the end of this decade, according to a study by Grand View Research, a market research and advisory firm.

VulcanForms was born in 2013 from a graduate course in additive manufacturing at MIT taught by Hart and attended by Martin Feldman – the company’s CEO. Feldman said GE’s announcement about making jets was one of the things that inspired him to believe the technology was poised for a leap forward.

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

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“Making parts is a much better deal than selling machines,” said Hart, who added that by outsourcing production to VulcanForms, a customer can reap the benefits of 3D printing without investing in new technology and people having to hire people who are familiar with handling unfamiliar machines.

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

The company also recently purchased a nearby machine shop that uses conventional machinery to produce metal parts – a realization that many parts requested by customers require machining beyond just 3D printing, such as 3D printing. B. polishing the finished parts. (Reporting by Timothy Aeppel; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)



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