Andel and Handling: 3-D success can be seen. Will it be felt?

July 11, 2013
The technology behind printing tangible, marketable objects is real, but it will take more than government’s seal of approval to induce a supply chain effect.

I can imagine some MH&L readers getting excited by the image on this month’s cover, rushing to our story on 3-D manufacturing and then applying the brakes when they come to this sentence:

"Additive manufacturing will democratize the manufacturing process."

This is a quote from Ed Morris, director of a National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Initiative (NAMII). The fact NAMII is a federally-funded initiative might even bring those readers to a dead stop. Aversion to the idea of government assistance for any industry initiative is understandable when you consider the government’s recent track record on "helping" nascent "breakthroughs."

Last year we reported that the Obama administration awarded $1.26 billion in matching grants toward the construction of plants dedicated to making batteries for electric cars. The goal was to create 6,400 jobs. At the time we reported this, about two-thirds of that money was spent and less than a third of those jobs had been created. These grants were tied to aggressive production goals.

Of course before that there was Solyndra—the solar energy firm that received a federal loan under the 2009 stimulus plan and then went bankrupt.

The problem, as we noted at the time, was that these ventures weren't based on real market demand. So why should NAMII, the "once shuttered warehouse" President Obama referred to in his State of the Union address, fare any better as a "state-of-the-art lab" dedicated to getting 3-D manufacturing off the ground? Good question. And as IndustryWeek, MH&L’s sister publication found out recently, even Doug Woods, president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology, is worried about that.

"Obviously we like the idea of any government program that benefits manufacturers," he told Travis Hessman, IW associate editor and author of our cover story. "And of course we love the fact that the administration has actually been very focused on manufacturing. But I really think that 15 projects is just too many and the cost to do them too high."

In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for funding 15 hubs, citing NAMII's early progress and promise of success. IW reported this would pressure NAMII’s director, Ed Morris, to get something done in the next few months, "not only for the future of additive manufacturing, but the future of all advanced technologies funding in the country."

So far NAMII has received $30 million in government funds and another $39 million from private partner investments. Woods is worried that researchers are being given too much to do in too little time, and that a scaled-down five-project agenda would help them be more prudent with the funding. He recommends that these projects have strict deadlines. "It should be, two years to get them set up, two years to prove out the technology, a year to measure the performance, to see if it’s any good, and then you can look at funding for an additional five years," he told Hessman. "This way, if a project doesn’t make its numbers in time, you can sunset it and move to another technology."

NAMII’s first round of funding has divvied up $4.5 million among seven teams of universities and manufacturers. Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University was one of those recipients, but as Hessman discovered, even James McGuffin-Cawley, chair of the material science and engineering department at Case, is concerned about the timing.
"The whole process was unusually compressed," he said, "announcing the call for proposals just four months after [NAMII’s] launch and handing out the awards just three months after that. It was so compressed, that there was simply no way to work out the details ahead of time."

I’m not pouring cold water on a hot technology. 3-D is real, as is its potential to radically change supply chain management. But if that potential is reached, it will be because of good old fashioned private sector supply and demand.

Follow me on Twitter @TomAndel.

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