Printing the Future: New Factory Technology Reshaped America’s Industrial Economy

DEVENS, Mass., Sept 21 (Reuters) – The huge machines churning out metal parts on this factory floor don’t whine or screech – or make any other sounds usually associated with heavy manufacturing.

They attract.

“It’s like a data center in here,” said VulcanForms co-founder John Hart, who grew out of his research at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The administration wants to reform America’s industrial economy.

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VulcanForms, which recently raised $355 million in venture funding, exemplifies the kind of manufacturing — cutting edge, clean, futuristic — that must flourish to achieve its ambitions.

Government initiatives worth billions for semiconductor factories and other advanced technologies have boosted the manufacturing sector in ways not long imagined. Some suggest that the United States is poised for a manufacturing renaissance, aided by pragmatic industrial policy, an economic development approach widely used in many parts of the world but not in the United States, where free marketers see it. Picking winners and losers is long overdue.

Now, even many Republicans, who have long been a party character in opposition to such “central planning” tactics, have thrown their hats into the ring with the rise of Donald Trump as their leader and his unapologetic “America-first” attitude.

Bitter partisanship has led many to criticize Biden’s reformed approach, but since Trump appeared on the scene, he has embraced his own iterations, such as millions in public money for Foxconn’s crumbling Wisconsin high-tech factory.

VulcanForms builds metal parts by bending and twisting them, rather than cutting them from metal blocks or stamping them in steel mills.

So the closed product surface. Each of the 10 machines at the VulcanForms factory funnels together 150 different laser beams into a sealed box, where a mechanical gantry sweeps back and forth at high speed, forming parts no thicker than a human hair. The factory made everything from medical implants and gunpowder equipment to tire molds and computer cooling equipment. VulcanForms provides parts for a dozen defense programs, including the F3 Joint Strike Fighter jet.

Greg Reikow, a former Tesla manufacturing chief and general partner with Ecclesiae Ventures, the private equity firm that invested in VulcanForms, said such plants should help many manufacturers struggle to avoid the supply chain shocks of the past two years. Obtain parts from foreign factories during outbreaks.

“You can build parts for phones one day, you can build aerospace parts the next day,” Reichow said, “so this dramatically increases the efficiency and speed of manufacturing.”

Piece policies

Certainly, the U.S. approach to strengthening industries such as additive manufacturing is less likely than that of competitors like China. U.S. policies remain more piecemeal — targeting subsidies that could easily collapse under future administrations — and the expectations of U.S. private-sector investors remain muted. US investors are more demanding of investments than their counterparts in other parts of the world, limiting how much generous government subsidies drive decisions on new plants.

The Biden administration announced in May that it was partnering with five large manufacturers, including Honeywell International Inc. and Raytheon Technologies Corp., to encourage more technology adoption among those companies’ small and midsize suppliers. The program, called Additive Manufacturing Forward, is voluntary and includes a commitment from large companies to help train workers at their suppliers to use the new technology.

The technology fulfills the administration’s promise to promote “green” industries as it cuts the cost of materials by 90% and cuts energy use in half.

But it remains a relatively narrow room. Additive manufacturing was once considered too slow, expensive or imprecise to produce entirely in factories. But as the technology develops, many companies have started using it to make finished parts. For example, General Electric Co. uses 3D printers to produce fuel lines that go into engines in Airbus and Boeing airplanes.

The 3D printing market in North America is valued at $3.1 billion, although it is forecast to grow by about 20% annually for the rest of the decade, according to a study by Grand View Research, a market research and consulting firm.

VulcanForms grew out of an additive manufacturing course at MIT in 2013, taught by Hart and where Martin Feldman — the company’s CEO — was a student. Feldman said GE’s announcement about developing the nozzles was one of the reasons he believed the technology was ready to leap forward.

Vulcanforms is unique among 3D printing companies in that it builds its own proprietary machines — which it doesn’t sell to other manufacturers — and uses them to make parts for its customers.

“Making parts is more work than selling machines,” says Hart, who says that by putting a product into Vulcan form, a customer gets the benefits of 3D printing without having to invest in new technology and hire skilled people to use unusual machines.

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

The company recently purchased a machine shop that uses conventional machines to make metal parts – this recognition recognizes that many parts requested by customers require processes such as polishing of finished parts beyond 3D printing.

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Reporting by Timothy Epel; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ritchie

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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