Conventional manufacturing won’t experience a major resurgence in the United States anytime soon, if ever, due to lower labor costs overseas and improving technology. But with the development of sophisticated metal additive machines, sometimes referred to as 3-D printing, the future of high-tech domestic manufacturing looks bright.
Consider the story of POM Group Inc. in Auburn Hills, which got its start in 1999. Initially, the company took on R&D projects for the U.S. Department of Defense, including a contract to determine if 3-D printing of metal parts could be accomplished in the field, or in a project that utilized satellite communications on a U.S. Naval carrier.
When its last military contract expired in November, POM was determined to make a go of it in the private sector. Long story short: A new company called DM3D Technology was formed to acquire POM’s assets, although the location didn’t change. Now DM3D is seeking customers for its patented additive metal manufacturing technology. “Forget the science projects, we’re determined to take things to the next level,” says Roger Parsons, DM3D’s CEO.
The new company will retain Jyoti Mazumder, POM’s founding CEO, as a consultant. Under the direction of Mazumder, also a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the company worked on more than 500 development projects which resulted in 29 different patents. “We were running science experiments, in essence, but at some point we have to move the technology from the laboratory to real-world applications,” Mazumder says.
Since January, the new company has approached numerous manufacturers in automotive, aerospace, medical devices, and oil and gas equipment, among others. The roster of clients includes Timken, Malley Industries, Hydra Force, Briggs & Stratton, BAE Systems, RTI International, and GKN.
While conventional 3-D printers that retail for as low as $500 are able to produce small objects like toys, paperweights, or jewelry, industrial additive machines can make high-quality products like a piston, a mold, or a die. The challenge is that layer-by-layer printing takes time, and typically involves the direct application of a single metal powder using a high-power laser beam.
“As we move into commercial applications, the question becomes how do you scale up to do millions of parts?” Parsons says. “With our technology, we can add different metals at the same time. As a result, we can create new components or rebuild worn parts, like a production mold, with higher-strength metals that boosts the lifespan of the component four times or more.”
The application works on parts as heavy as 10 tons, such as a worn die on an automotive assembly line (which can cost thousands of dollars to replace). Under normal procedures, the worn die would be recycled and a new one ordered. DM3D’s additive metal machines, by contrast, can repair such dies — as well as worn turbine blades, engine heads, or molds — in as little as three hours. It’s also much cheaper than buying new parts.
“The market for additive metal machines is huge when you consider the millions of parts that wear down during normal manufacturing processes,” Parsons says. “It’s a major market representing billions of dollars, and it’s a game-changer.”
While the world is a long way from on-demand 3-D printing, where a local additive metal factory could produce a watch, a motorcycle, or a car and have it delivered to your door, it’s clear the next wave of manufacturing will create plenty of demand for high-tech production and employment in the United States. db