Blog Menu

U.S. Manufacturing in the Future

March 7, 2010

Filed under: additive manufacturing,future,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 07:48

An estimated 1,200–1,300 injection molding machines shipped in the U.S. in 2009, according to editor Bill Bregar in the December 7, 2009 issue of Plastics News. Contrast this with an estimated 1,886 additive manufacturing (AM) systems sold in 2008 in the U.S. and 5,060 worldwide, according to Wohlers Report 2009. (Figures for the 2009 calendar year are not yet available.)

Undeniably, more AM systems are being sold and installed in the U.S. than injection molding (IM) machines and this came as a surprise to me. I understand clearly that the 1,200–1,300 IM machines are producing far more parts than a greater number of AM systems. However, the AM systems are producing a much larger variety of parts than the IM machines.

What I find most interesting about this is where it might lead U.S. product development and manufacturing in the future. Additive manufacturing is about flexibility and relatively low volumes, while IM is about locking in on a design and producing relatively high volumes. AM permits highly complex shapes and geometric features, even assemblies, in a single build. Fairly complex parts are possible with IM, but cost rises accordingly. AM can product high-value parts without tooling, while most IM parts are relatively low in value with tooling.

What does all of this mean? The U.S. is positioning itself, without even knowing it, to become a producer of low volume, high value, and high margin products. This bodes well for the aerospace, defense, medical, and dental industries where products typically fall squarely into this category. It also presents the opportunity to produce expensive replacement parts for the military, as well as high-margin custom and limited edition products for consumers. China, India, and other countries may eventually follow to some degree, but I believe American creativity, inventiveness, and entrepreneurial spirit will prevail and clinch an advantage in this area of manufacturing.