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Biden Announces AM Forward Program To Foster Adoption Of Additive Manufacturing

06 May 2022 | Willy Shih

Laser sintering is one of the technologies used for the additive manufacturing of metals GETTY

This morning President Biden is announcing the Additive Manufacturing Forward (AM Forward) program, a partnership between several large U.S. original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and some of their small and medium enterprise (SME) suppliers to help speed up their adoption of additive manufacturing technology and upgrade their capabilities. The OEMs include GE, Lockheed, Raytheon, Siemens Energy, Honeywell, and Northrup Grumman, all of whom depend on their supply base to invest in new technology so that they themselves can stay competitive.

Additive manufacturing (AM), often referred to as 3D printing, is really a suite of technologies that are used together to build parts directly from digital models. It can be used for many types of materials, including plastics and metals. The real promise of the technology is that it removes some of the limitations that parts designers typically face then they use conventional production processes such as machining, casting, or other forming processes. It is possible to make parts with buried holes or curved channels, things that would be impossible to make with conventional machining.

AM has gone through the typical hype cycle, but over the last decade huge strides have been made in producing metal parts. Large OEMs like GE Aviation have really embraced it, using it to manufacture fuel nozzles for its LEAP engines (flying on the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320 families) and low pressure turbine blades. Some firms have embraced AM for the production of castings, but many SMEs have been slow to adopt it. Often this is because of uncertainty around customer demand. Investments in new 3D printing machines and computer modeling hardware and software usually means taking on debt and financial risk. Without the assurance of demand for products that will take advantage of this technology, it is more than many SMEs can stomach. These firms also don’t necessarily have the technical skills in their workforce to install and use AM tools. Thus most firms don’t have the either the capacity or the capabilities to produce additively, and thus their OEM customers have more difficulty incorporating or qualifying AM produced parts in their own designs.

This is where AM Forward comes in. The Administration describes it as a “public compact” between large OEMs and their U.S.-based suppliers to invest in new additive machines, help train their workers, provide technical assistance, and agree to participate in standards development. Most importantly, the OEMs are supposed to provide “demand signals.” That means they promise to buy stuff. GE Aviation says it will target U.S.-based SMEs for 30% of its total external sourcing of additively manufactured parts, Raytheon Technologies RTX +0.6% will seek SMEs for 50% of parts manufactured with AM, and Siemens Energy will target 20-40% of its sourced AM Parts.

A 3D sand printer used to manufacture molds for the metal casting industry, FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP via Getty Images)

This could be particularly helpful to the domestic metalcasting industry, where Lockheed-Martin will focus on working with SMEs on AM for metalcasting and forgings. Castings are used to produce 90% of all durable goods and nearly all manufacturing production machinery. The American Foundry Society claims that most people are rarely more than 10 feet from a casting, whether it is a cast iron frying pan sitting on your stove, a shutoff valve in your plumbing, parts of the suspension or powertrain of your car, or the fire hydrant your dog is decorating. Lockheed-Martin obviously is interested more in defense products, which is good. In 2020, The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) identified 30,061 castings and forgings out of 32,597 maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) parts that they were having trouble sourcing. Many of these parts support critical go-to-war weapon systems and platforms that affect military readiness. AM could be perfect to produce these.

There are around 1,750 foundries in the U.S. that collectively employ 490,000 people. 80% employ fewer than 100 people, and many have been slow to adopt AM. The AM Forward initiative will leverage the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Business and Industry program, as well as the Export-Import Bank’s new domestic lending program and the Small Business Administration’s 504 Loan program to help these firms and other SME metalworkers finance the new equipment. The program also includes providing training and technical support from a multitude of organizations.

In recent months I have given multiple talks stressing the importance of working on the demand side of the equation, not just the supply side. I usually tell the story about a Chinese motorcycle manufacturer that I visited some years ago. They got started by selling an imperfect but good enough copy of a top Japanese brand to poor rural Chinese who were happy to pay a small fraction of the price that they might otherwise have to pay for the original. But the company had installed their own version of the Toyota Production System, and they were cranking out bikes like there was no tomorrow. Well that company grew up to be large and successful. The key insight for me was that they had steady demand for their product, which gave them the cash flow to operate, learn, and invest. Said another way, somebody paid their tuition while they learned to improve their product and manufacturing processes.

That’s what our SMEs need – someone to pay their tuition by buying stuff, while helping them learn by practicing, and upgrade their capabilities. That’s a great way to improve manufacturing capabilities in this country.

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ARTICLE BY FORBES

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