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Will Government Aid Really Boost US Additive Manufacturing?

The Biden Administration’s new package of aid for the nation’s manufacturing SMEs called Additive Manufacturing Forward aims to promote innovation and adoption of additive manufacturing (3D printing) to solve a whole host of current problems – from blocked supply chains to off-shored manufacturing jobs to simply losing out to other nations when it comes to innovations in manufacturing. Americans are feeling the effects of the small manufacturers’ failure to modernize in the form of higher prices on goods, Biden said at the launch of the program on May 6 in Ohio.

“3D printing technology is incredible,” Biden said, “it can reduce part lead times by as much as 90%, slash material costs by 90%, and cut energy use in half. That all lowers the cost of making goods here in America. But not all small and medium size firms have access to the resources, financing, and support they need to adapt to this technology, until today.”

AM Forward is a complex mix of partnerships, commitments, and a range of federal programs that American manufacturers can use to support their adoption of additive manufacturing and increase their competitiveness.

Will it work?

Other countries have had similar programs to promote the adoption of additive manufacturing technology, and AM Forward isn’t the U.S.’s first plan. In fact, there’s no shortage of nations vying to be the world’s hub for additive manufacturing innovation with hundreds of millions being invested worldwide, all in an effort to kick start a new industrial revolution for aging manufacturing sectors.

The approaches vary, but one thing appears consistent; spurring the manufacturing sector to innovate takes time. Let’s take a look at what’s happening around the world and see how AM Forward compares.

Making R&D More Accessible

The Catapult Program in the U.K. infused the nation’s manufacturing sector with more than $900 million in 2018 to advance innovation in important markets from biotech to manufacturing. The program established a series of Catapult centers to accelerate the application of research and scale-up new technologies. Catapult centers provide businesses with access to their expertise and facilities, enabling them to test, demonstrate, and improve their ideas.

Today, the program boasts more than 9,000 SMEs helped. Among them RAM Engineering & Tooling, a machine tool supplier. The program helped the engineering company understand the complexities of additive manufacturing technology and de-risk their plans before adopting it. Use of additive manufacturing within RAM Engineering & Tooling is already starting to pay dividends, according to Catapult. The approach has allowed the company to begin offering its customers additive technology alongside its cutting tools, which has helped it secure orders from new customers.

“Funding for AM started very late in the U.K., earlier in Europe, especially Germany,” says Ian Halliday, an AM strategy consultant and pioneer in the industry. “The U.S. was, oddly, a bit later to the governmental support game, although there was a lot of money being put in from private equity and VCs.”

AM Forward’s plan calls for the Department of Energy to make its Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory available to SME manufacturers to test new additive manufacturing techniques. There’s also the promise of technical assistance through the government’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which has centers in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Public-Private Partnerships

Germany is Europe’s 3D printing hot spot and home to nearly 25% of all additive manufacturing companies in the world. About one in three large German industrial companies from aerospace, and automotive to machinery and railway sectors, currently use 3D printing in some fashion, according to Germany Trade & Invest, the country’s foreign trade agency. The manufacturing sector there has been quick to adopt 3D printing technology due in no small part to significant government-funded programs ever since Germany first identified additive manufacturing as a key technology more than a decade ago.

Today, Germany is moving beyond R&D and SME adoption to factory production lines and complementing conventional technologies with additive manufacturing. One government project called IDAM (Industrialization and Digitalization of Additive Manufacturing), which launched in 2020 and provided more than $10 million in funding, just debuted its first success story. BMW announced its fully automated additive manufacturing production line at its plant outside of Munich that is expected to 3D print 50,000 metal auto components a year. This initiative was a public-private pilot program with BMW’s participation as a proof of concept to spur further adoption.

In Sweden, the Research Institutes of Sweden’s Additive Manufacturing Application Center is another example of a public-private innovation partnership to spur the adoption of 3D printing as a sustainable manufacturing technology. Through its programs, the center offers seminars, covering different aspects of additive manufacturing, feasibility studies for companies interested in additive manufacturing, and hands-on training and education.

AM Forward is also a public-private initiative with major corporations taking the lead. Companies including GE Aviation, Honeywell, and Lockheed Martin

have signed on to the AM Forward pact pledging to purchase 3D printed components from US suppliers. More major enterprises are expected to join AM Forward and establish an attractive marketplace for the 3D printed products of America’s small and medium-sized manufacturers.

​”What I like about AM Forward is that it is a public-private compact,” says John Barnes, an industry veteran turned AM consultant, “and if we work together, we can solve a variety of problems. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for the government to drop a bunch of money, but what we need today are more parts flowing through the AM supply chain. When that happens, manufacturers will invest.”

Standardize Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing encompasses at least seven unique technologies, a vast ecosystem of materials, and countless proprietary machines, and it spans every niche of manufacturing, many of which in regulated industries require the certification of the final product.

The lack of standardization in additive manufacturing has long been identified as a hurdle to adoption. Although the International Organization for Standardization and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), have established some standards since they began coordinating their efforts nearly a decade ago, many local and national organizations are working toward implementing their own standards and approving 3D-printed parts for use in markets such as aerospace, healthcare, and oil and gas.

The EU’s Support Action for Standardization in Additive Manufacturing (SASAM) initiative aims to implement uniform standards and coordinate standardization activities across Europe so more manufacturers in regulated industries can adopt additive manufacturing faster.

AM Forward has also identified common standards development and certification for additive products as one of its four pillars to ensure the advancement of AM. The Biden Administration has promised that the U.S. Department of Commerce through the National Institute of Standards and Technology will not only conduct research but fast-track standards approval, especially for metal 3D printing.

“Previous efforts to boost adoption of additive manufacturing in the U.S. have been focused more on awareness and development and less on production,” notes Barnes. “Education and R&D are necessary, of course, but without the standards, we cannot adopt it, so it all ties together.”

Upskill the Manufacturing Workforce

Additive Manufacturing requires significant investment, one that is not easy to make without first-hand knowledge of the benefits of its implementation.

Dozens of Universities worldwide now offer degree programs in additive manufacturing churning out thousands of AM engineers a year, which is not close to meeting current demand.

Education options are weak for retraining the current manufacturing labor force and 3D printer makers, take up much of the slack, says Halliday. “The vast majority of the educational effort in the UK was shouldered by the AM service providers, simply because nobody else had much of a vested interest in getting that job done. Still, AM awareness in the UK in small businesses still has a long way to go.”

National additive manufacturing centers, such as the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and America Makes, a DOD-sponsored manufacturing innovation institute in Ohio, also offer education to fill this gap.

The Biden Administration has tasked America Makes to do more. AM Forward will rely on the organization to develop a curriculum for workforce training – only with AM Forward participants – and will assist manufacturers in launching apprenticeship programs in additive manufacturing.

Cash to Buy Equipment

Despite the critical importance of training, education, and R&D, funding for equipment purchases is what drives adoption the fastest, 3D printer makers say.

“We’ve seen grants have a huge impact on sales,” says Thomas Claustre, sales director at French 3D printer maker Prodways. “The grant environment is still strong in eastern European countries, but less so in western Europe where additive manufacturing has more of a foothold.” In Europe today, it’s common for a young company starting out to offer 3D printing as a service to receive grants toward machine purchases, Claustre says, “but grants delay a sale by as much as six months, depending on how fast the customer can get the grant.”

In recent years, the German government offered subsidies of up to 70% for companies to buy 3D printers, Austria offered a 14% grant, and the UK offered a wide range of grants for start-ups and companies pledging to innovate.

AM Forward will provide affordable financing to small manufacturers through various programs enabling them to upgrade their existing production equipment, purchase new additive machines, and provide the training necessary to upskill their workforce, but direct funding grants do not appear to be on the table.

A Multipronged Approach

If one thing is clear from a look at international efforts to boost additive manufacturing adoption, it requires a packaged approach. Combining education, practical skill training, outreach, and research while establishing standards, partnering with industry, and directly underwriting equipment purchases are all important. AM Forward, developed in partnership with many of the manufacturers and organizations that have been championing additive manufacturing in the U.S. for decades, appears to have the right ingredients to spark sustained investment and adoption of industrial additive manufacturing.

When will results be apparent?

“It always takes longer than you think it should to adopt something that brings positive change,” says Halliday. “I would say two to four years would be excellent, but probably more like five to 10 years.”