By Mark Farris, CEO, Greenville Area Development Corporation
The GADC works with over 100 companies annually who look to locate here or expand existing operations. Of those, about 70% are manufacturers — although certainly not like the factories of decades past. The technology involved in today’s value-added processing has changed so dramatically that many plant floors could be mistaken for NASA laboratories. Chief among these incredible innovations is 3-D printing.
Starting out as a novel way to produce rapid prototypes of new or re-engineered products with polymers and plastics, this technology has the potential to redefine manufacturing using powdered metals and other advanced materials.
Clemson University and GE recently announced a new Additive Manufacturing Lab within GE Power’s Advanced Manufacturing Works facility in Greenville. The Clemson-run lab will be managed by the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and features three machines that print in both metal and industrial plastic, including a new GE Additive Concept Laser M2 Cusing direct metal laser melting (DMLM) machine. GE professionals will train students on specific uses of additive manufacturing as well as optimized machine operations and post-processing techniques. This will provide them with skills and experience on cutting-edge technology demanded by industry leaders today.
“Disruptive technology” is usually approached with caution and skepticism, sometimes to the point of denial. In human history waves of industrial revolution including steam engines, comprehensive electrical distribution and the development of computers become social benchmarks for advancement based on quantum leaps in productivity. Buggy whips and slide rules became punchlines as we measure the impact of these upheavals. We may be on the verge of another with 3D printing and other types of additive manufacturing.
Profit Through Productivity
Often referred to as “Star Trek” technology based on the radical 1960’s TV show, three dimensional ‘printing’ to many is almost magical. The concept of building, layer by layer, a part or product instead of stamping, forming, molding or milling will turn manufacturing more into a technology-based venture as opposed to present labor-intensive processing. Gone will be lines of workers adding value in a chain of handling parts or products — replaced with units designed to spit out a finished component or even a fully- integrated product. Fewer people, more and better parts AND higher profits. Every industrial engineer’s dream!
Distribution Costs Savings
Despite lower fuel prices, the complex and sometimes risky process of global and domestic logistics is often one of the largest expense items impacting EBITDA. The ability to design and then build almost every component part of a product may eliminate several steps in the manufacturing process. Besides significant time savings, the requirement to ship to multiple locations for different value-added treatment could be reduced.
Manufacturers are often asked to make slight variations in essentially the same product at the request of clients. As branding and therefore exclusivity becomes more important to many companies, the ease of customization brought about by 3D printing is extraordinary. The elimination of ‘re-tooling’ to achieve these product alternatives can be a huge windfall. The resulting emphasis on unique design would allow many companies the freedom to experiment at very little cost.
Manufacturing Costs Become More Uniform
The capacity to refine many manufacturing processes almost to the point of standardization would eliminate many risks as a company goes through product development. While leaving plenty of room for adaptation, the established core cost of making a part or product would be apparent. The greatest variant again, may well be innovation and creativity.
What Choice is There?
Fax machines were transformational for business communication when they began to be used widely in the mid 1980’s. Any group that resisted the early versions of these torturous devices was immediately left at a disadvantage in a competitive environment. Many of us struggled with the change brought about by instantaneous response times… until we lost a client because we didn’t have such a machine!
3D and additive manufacturing technologies are here to stay, and the longer a company refuses to embrace the transformation, the further behind they’ll be in the globally competitive manufacturing arena. Fortunately, Greenville once again is planning to be on the leading edge.