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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.

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