Rapid Short-Run Production Will Protect U.S. Manufacturing

By Terry Wohlers

With its leadership in RP technology, the U.S. is poised to secure a precious share of manufacturing in the future.

"Viewpoint" is a monthly column authored by Terry Wohlers for Time-Compression Technologies
This column was published in the April/May 2004 issue.

It's no secret that U.S. manufacturing has declined over the last few years. Toolmakers have been hit particularly hard. Many would agree that the economy has been a cause, while others blame the exodus of manufacturing to Asia as the factor. At the 2002 American Mold Builders Association Convention in Puerto Rico, speaker Thomas Siwek of Pro Tech Plastics (Chicago, IL) said that China has a double-barrel shotgun pointed at U.S. manufacturing. One barrel is pointed at the molders and the other at the moldmakers.

It's possible that manufacturing in our great nation will never return to levels of the past. Also, it's painful to acknowledge that decades-old, family-owned companies have disappeared. Sadly, the knowledge and expertise at these companies are likely gone forever. It's unfortunate to hear story after story of how bright, capable, hard-working individuals at these companies once thrived and are now flipping burgers or unemployed.

The U.S. has come to the point where it now manufactures very little. Fortunately, we still build planes, automobiles and military equipment. Most frightening is that we risk losing it all. Can you fathom the consequences of sending our weapon designs to other countries for manufacturing because we lack the capacity (e.g, tooling expertise) to do it ourselves?

One bright spot is that U.S. companies continue to design and prototype in impressive numbers. These phases of product development are also changing, but not nearly to the extent of tooling and production. Most U.S. companies prefer to develop new designs and test these concepts close to home. I do not expect this to change much over time. Only about 5 to 10 percent of an entire product development budget is spent on design and prototyping, so the money saved by moving these activities off shore is negligible compared to tooling and manufacturing. Also, companies prefer to maintain control over sensitive designs at this early and vulnerable stage.

Rapid Manufacturing's Role
So, how will these same companies preserve or bring back some of what has gone elsewhere? In the short-term, little will change, and it will possibly worsen. In the long term, however, companies that embrace new methods of manufacturing will be able to protect the production of certain parts. A small but growing number of companies are finding that it's possible to build production-quality parts using methods of rapid manufacturing. These organizations are taking advantage of machines designed for RP to build parts in quantities of one to thousands without any molds or dies. Tooling has always been a necessary evil and a step that companies would like to avoid, but that has never been an option for most of them. When production quantities are relatively low, as they are at a surprising number of companies, it's especially hard to accept the time and cost of tooling.

Many product designs require materials that are not available for today's RP machines. Also, accuracy and surface finish are considerations. Yet, companies in very depending industries such as aerospace (e.g., Boeing), motor sports (e.g., Renault F1 Team) and hearing instruments (e.g., Siemens) have proved that RP technology, such as laser sintering, is more than capable of producing high quality parts for finished products. As the choice of materials expands, and machines are enhanced for manufacturing applications, an exciting number of companies will find the idea not only compelling, but the only option that is economical and competitive.

One might argue that while methods of rapid manufacturing might be interesting to U.S. manufacturers, what will stop this interest from gaining momentum overseas? Already, some organizations in Europe and Asia are exploring the use of RP technology for manufacturing. The UK's Rapid Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University, for example, is arguably the largest and most advanced think tank on the subject in the world. So how will rapid manufacturing give the U.S. an edge and preserve manufacturing jobs?

It will be a great deal more expensive—in both time and money—to deliver rapid manufactured parts to the U.S. from another country. This will become especially true when banks of 3-D industrial printers are in place at or near a customer's site. Delivery will be the same or next day, making it next to impossible for organizations outside the U.S. to compete.

In a rapid manufacturing environment, true just-in-time manufacturing becomes a reality. Inventories can be near zero because the parts are stored in a computer, not on shelves. Companies will require the availability of a sufficient amount of raw materials (e.g., powders), but that's about all. Final designs will be sent to the machines for production on-demand. Also, companies will not pay a penalty for producing a few parts, changing the design, and then producing a few more. What's more, manufacturing a custom design in small quantities will not be cost prohibitive, as it is with tooling.

Also, for many designs, labor requirements are at a minimum when building parts on an RP machine. At one Japanese company, for example, five part-time employees support twenty-six stereolithography machines. Labs of five to ten machines are at work around the country building parts with little staffing.

Manufacturing creates wealth. China has taught us this. With its leadership in RP technology, the U.S. is poised to secure a precious share of manufacturing in the future. The effort will require creativity, risk and determination, but these are qualities that form the foundation of manufacturing in the United States of America.

For more information contact Terry Wohlers, principal consultant and president of Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO)— a consulting firm specializing in prototyping and rapid product development—at www.wohlersassociates.com.