DEVENS, Mass., Sept 21 (Reuters) – The giant machines churning out metal parts on this factory floor don’t bang or rattle – or make any of the other noises usually associated with heavy-duty manufacturing.
“It sounds like a data center here,” said John Hart, co-founder of Vulcanform, a start-up 3D printing company that grew out of his research at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and how Biden envisions it. The administration wants to reshape the US industrial economy.
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VulcanForms, which recently raised $355 million in venture funding, exemplifies the type of manufacturing—sophisticated, clean, futuristic—that must evolve to achieve that ambition.
A wave of government initiatives, including billions earmarked for semiconductor factories and other advanced technologies, has raised the profile of the manufacturing sector to a level not long ago possible. Some suggest that the United States is poised for a manufacturing revival, which is emerging as a genuine industrial policy, aided by an economic development approach widely used in many parts of the world, but largely absent in the United States where free marketers see it as a sort of winner and loser. Long kept it at bay.
Now even many Republicans, whose opposition to such “central planning” strategies has long been a defining party trait, have thrown their hats into the ring given the rise of Donald Trump as their leader and his unqualified “America-first” vision.
Bitter partisanship has kept many of them critical of Biden’s evolving approach, but they have adopted their own iterations since Trump appeared on the scene, such as supporting millions in public funding for Foxconn’s vulnerable high-tech plant in Wisconsin.
VulcanForms creates metal parts in layers and fuses the materials together — instead of cutting them from blocks of metal or stamping them in a metal foundry.
So hushed the production floor. Each of the 10 machines lined up in the VulcanForms factory funnel combines 150 separate laser beams into a sealed box, where a mechanical gantry sweeps back and forth at high speed, laying down layers no thicker than a human hair as it builds the part. The factory produced everything from medical implants and gun suppressors to tire molds and computer cooling devices. VulcanForms supplies parts for a dozen defense programs, including the F3 Joint Strike Fighter jet.
Greg Reichow, a former Tesla Inc. manufacturing leader and general partner with Eclipse Ventures, which invested in VulcanForms, said such factories should help avoid the supply chain shocks seen in the past two years, when many manufacturers struggled. Get parts from overseas factories during pandemics.
“You can make parts for phones one day, aerospace parts the next day,” Richo said, “so it dramatically increases the efficiency and speed of manufacturing.”
To be sure, the US approach to strengthening industries such as additive manufacturing falls far short of the all-encompassing policies of a competitor like China. U.S. policies remain more fragmented — targeting funds that could easily go under future administrations — and held back by the expectations of U.S. private sector investors. US investors generally demand higher returns on investment than their counterparts in other parts of the world, and even generous government subsidies limit the decisions they can make on new plants.
The Biden administration announced an initiative in May with five major manufacturers, including Honeywell International Inc. and Raytheon Technologies Corp., to encourage the use of additive technology among these companies’ small and midsize suppliers. The program, called Additive Manufacturing Forward, is voluntary and includes a commitment by major companies to help train workers at their supplier companies to use the new technology.
Additive manufacturing fits with the administration’s pledge to promote “green” industries, since the technology can cut materials costs by 90% and cut energy use in half.
But it remains a relatively narrow segment. Additive manufacturing was once considered too slow, expensive, or wrong for full-blown manufacturing in factories. But as the technology improved, more companies started using it to make finished parts. General Electric Co., for example, uses 3D printers to churn out fuel nozzles that go into Airbus and Boeing jet engines.
The market for 3D printing in North America is estimated at $3.1 billion, though it is projected to grow about 20% annually for the rest of this decade, according to a study by Grand View Research, a market research and consulting firm.
VulcanForms grew out of a 2013 graduate course on additive manufacturing at MIT, taught by Hart and where Martin Feldman — the company’s CEO — was a student. Feldman said GE’s announcement about making the nozzle was one of the things that inspired him to believe the technology was ready to move forward.
VulcanForms is unique among 3D printing companies in that it builds its own proprietary machines — which it won’t sell to other producers — and uses them to make parts for its customers.
“Making parts is a much better business than selling machines,” says Hart, who adds that by outsourcing manufacturing to VulcanForms, a customer gets the benefits of 3D printing without investing in new technology and hiring skilled people to use unfamiliar machines.
The company is growing rapidly, with plans to double the number of 3D printing machines at the Devens factory by the end of this year.
The company also recently purchased a nearby machine shop that uses conventional machines to make metal parts — a recognition that many of the parts requested by customers will require processing beyond just 3D printing, such as polishing the finished parts.
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Reporting by Timothy Appel; Editing by Dan Barnes and Andrea Ricci
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