Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.



A New 3-D Printing Center Aims To Recreate U.S. Manufacturing

Our new industrial sector might not be the steam-belching factories of old, but there is a plan to have the U.S. making things again, using high-tech printers instead of assembly lines.

Why fabricate it when you can print it? That philosophy is driving the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a $70 million effort to make almost any design a printable object. Jets, homes, computers, drones, bicycles, and spare parts are just a few of the things, at least in theory, that will be exuded out of printer nozzles using a 3-D-printing process in the future rather than a massive factory.

The Institute is a public-private partnership, headed by the U.S. military, that will try to take 3-D printers where they have never gone before. Designs are reconfigured on a computer, and manufactured on the fly without retooling or new factories. The printer is the factory. Unsurprisingly, the military is very interested: Such printers could churn out replacement parts on the battlefield, or cut manufacturing’s energy intensity by 50% within a decade (a Department of Energy goal).

Spinoffs of this blue sky research may transform the civilian landscape—at least that’s how the Air Force Research Laboratory is pitching it: "This pilot Institute will serve as a technical center of excellence, providing the innovation infrastructure to support manufacturing enterprises of all sizes and ensure that the U.S. manufacturing sector is a key pillar in an enduring and thriving economy."

The Initiative is the latest in a quiet but far-reaching campaign by the Obama Adminstration to retool and revive the U.S. manufacturing sector, something Germany and China have clobbered in recent decades, not to mention maintain (or in some cases reclaim) the U.S. lead in science research and development: The Chinese government has begun to rapidly close this funding gap, pouring $3 billion into R&D in 2011 alone, seven times the level in 1998.

Yet the money has not materialized. In March, President Obama asked Congress to invest $1 billion in a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation that the Administration claims will "boost competitiveness throughout America" along with plans for a Materials Genome Initiative and Advanced Manufacturing Partnership with the private sector to make commercializing advanced materials "faster, less expensive, and more predictable."

The proposals have foundered amid Congressional gridlock. For now, only "pilot projects" and executive initiatives are on the assembly line.

Add New Comment


  • Tír-Ná-Nóg Banshee

    So your going to print everything under the canopy of the F22 ATF stealth jet. HUD, fired control, OSB input screens, APUs, altimeters, weapons delivery controls, etc. And do that in your basement? Maybe you would like to build a bridge to nowhere. Come back to me in 100 years and lets talk.

  • Rodrigo Castaman

    OK, the scenario of people having personal 3D printers at home may be a little far future, but if we could have goods manufactured locally, in close proximity with the worlds biggest urban centers, that would already be a massive gain in sustainability, since a lot of shipping wouldn't be necessary anymore. This is definetly a future worth porsuing and I'm glad the U.S is investing on it.

  • Numa

    Manufacturing in the USA will never ever be worthwhile for many investors both foreign and domestic, except it is for high ticket objects like war planes, arillery and munitions, bombers, guns and ammo etc. which are basically taxpayer subsidized in as much as the welfare receiving manufacturers sell it back to the tax payers underwritten approved mecenaries (Army, navy and air force.) for 1000 times the cost What real americans need for their day to day living cannot be printed or made competitive enough because the people who control and own the country or the united sates corporation are in it for profit so manufacturing within the country on any decent scale is never going to happen again. The have moved the factories abroad and that is the way it is going to remain. The real way forward for industralists who can;t shake the bug and are keen for customers is not to go arty farty with things no one wants is to find a way and create a market in places like africa than practically needs everything that the factories which have been mothballed in the USA Then move the rusting steel there. The market is there. Improve the GDP a little and massive demand for american products produced like in the 50;s will be unquenchable. Trying to wake up dead horse is guranteed failure. The only manufacturers who can produce within the United states corporation is the Military Industrial complex. No other company can,This is one of the many reason practically all goods used in company;s yard is made abroad. It is good and fanciful coming up with 3D printing, but iit just not going to cut Xhit! 

  • Etcher

    I agree with most of your statements. Manufactuers of consumer goods do not want you to be able to repair them. They are banking on you replacing the product within 24 months and the advancing technology makes this possible. The real driving force behind the rush to China and any other country that has cheap labor is the gurus on Wallstreet. They constantly demand better profits every quarter and any industry which is labor intense cannot avoid going off shore. The problem is that the gurus don't get the fact that it is the factory workers who ultimately buy stock in their retirement plans don't buy stock when they are not working.
    Wallstreet needs to wake up and realize that our country needs to manufacture goods from raw materials for sale to the rest of the world and quit forcing our companies to take our technology off shore just to make them happy by meeting their preconceived projections.
    They really don't want to know how things are made and they don't care about PEOPLE, just the bottom line.
    The technology involved in 3D printing is limited  and at this time and well into the future so are the materials that can be used as printing mediums. The hype that surrounds this technology is just that, I think that 3D printing has its place in limited production of parts but the concept of everyone having a printer and making parts for themselves is absurd. Everyone would have to have a sophisticated the printer, a scanning system, software, the proper materials, and knowledge to run the software and most of all the interest to make the dumb part rather than buy it.
    There are many other processes that they have tried to develop as the next great thing and they haven't taken off. The military investments have paid off in many areas such as fiber optics, infrared technology, GPS which have spilled over into civilian life but this is one that I don't think is practical. It is not worthy of a massive government investment at this time. Help private industry get rolling again and if it is worthy of development, they will do it themselves. Americans still have great ingenuity.