Saturday, February 23, 2013

3D Printing is a Hot Political Topic

3D printing or additive fabrication is a hot topic, and not just to the engineers, fabricators and hobbyists anymore. It seems to be becoming part of the political symbology wrapped up in economic recovery or development. As I commented on the Made in Dayton blog, the National Academies Press recently released a report about Building the Ohio Innovation Economy that includes significant emphasis on additive fabrication, and the President mentioned the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, located in Youngstown, in his State of the Union address. There is also the Midwest Pilot for connecting High Performance Computing (HPC) resources to small and medium manufacturing concerns. As we saw in this topology optimization post, there is considerable need for scale-able computational approaches to fully realize the promise of additive manufacturing. Closer to home, your Dayton hackerspace is playing with a printrbot.

The NAP report has two sections of interest.

  • Panel II: Stimulating Manufacturing in Ohio
  • Panel III: Innovation Clusters and Economic Development
Panel II starts with some discussion of a weakened industrial commons, defined as a set of collective, overlapping set of competencies and resources that underlie the development of new technology products including engineering R&D, materials, standards, tools, equipment, scalable processes, components, and manufacturing competencies. The trade deficit in a particular sector ("advanced technology products") is cited as proof of this weakening. The US has the largest economy in the world and it is ranked 13th in terms of "complexity". I find simple statements about trade surpluses or deficits in particular sectors pretty unenlightening in terms of understanding or formulating sound policy. A strong industrial commons probably depends more on complex interactions of specialized product and services providers than it does on the balance of trade in a particular category of statistical aggregation.
Dr. Proenza told participants that this issue should be of concern to all because America's capacity to innovate determines its capability for economic growth. "Knowledge builds new capacities just as surely as new materials build new structures," he said, "and our nation's investments in research have built real assets that yield real and large returns. When new knowledge is quantified in a market environment, it creates fuller employment, capital formation, growing profits and surpluses for reinvestment. "In other words, research discoveries lead to new companies and new jobs; the economy expands, and new wealth is created."
Care is required here. Things are not as straight-forward as Dr. Proenza says. The rate of return for government investment in R&D can vary widely. Many types do not return at a rate significantly different from zero.

I've written previously on Dayton's Aerospace Cluster, so I won't touch on this topic much other than to say clusters are in the eye of the beholder. They are most real to the academics, consultants and ever-hopeful regional politicians that use the abstraction as a good hook for papers, consulting gigs, and rah-rah for re-elections.

The NDEMC Midwest Pilot is intended to increase the penetration of high performance modeling and simulation tools into the small and medium businesses that make up the regional supply chain. The hope is to increase competitiveness by lowering cost and time-to-market and increase efficiency and innovation through the use of advanced simulation tools.

Midwest Pilot for MS&A in the Regional Supply Chain

One of the most successful commons of our networked age is the Free Software ecosystem built up around GNU-Linux operating systems like Red Hat/Fedora and Debian/Ubuntu. One thing that discouraged me about the approach outlined in the Midwest Pilot white-paper was that, while lowering the barriers to entry for small businesses to use modeling and simulation was a point of emphasis, no mention was made of Free Software. Free Software can have very low barriers to entry and extremely attractive Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for small businesses. The white-paper mentioned commercial software vendors developing innovative licensing arrangements and pay-as-you-go Software-as-a-Service to lower barriers to entry. I think a neglected piece of this puzzle is the role free source software can play in radically increasing the penetration of advanced modeling and simulation tools into supply chains, especially in the context of additive fabrication. There are several viable business models:

  • Support Sellers (otherwise known as "Give Away the Recipe, Open A Restaurant"), e.g. Red Hat
  • Service Enabling
  • Loss Leader
  • Widget Frosting
  • Accessorizing
The first two are obvious ones. Provide value-added engineering and service support to get small businesses up and running with free software modeling and simulation tools. The last two are particularly interesting ways that free software may be able to play a role in future innovative manufacturing business models.

I am hopeful about new technology for direct digital fabrication mainly because I'm an engineer and I think new technology is neat. It is a little concerning that "Manufacturing" seems to be pleading for a special place in our economic policy. Why is fabrication more important or deserving of special treatment over other economic activity? As much as I love designing and making parts, there are many activities that have higher value in our modern economy than manufacturing, even "innovative" manufacturing.


  1. From the 'State and Regional Innovation Programs' section of the report: Underlying the global imperative, Mr. Bendis said, is the “new locational competition for economic activity. It is apparent that geographical boundaries are no longer relevant in a time of global competition. Basically, you’re competing against everybody, everywhere, every day.” The bar to entry is lower for countries around the world, he said, because innovation is replacing technology as the driver of economies. He recalled the Ohio Edison programs of a quarter-century ago which focused on industries, technologies and products. Innovation, he said, is more focused on services, processes, ways of communicating, partnering, and working together—“not just about creating the next best widget. That’s one of the paradigm shifts.”

  2. This is what excites me most about the additive manufacturing + high performance computing combo (my emphasis):
    When used together, 3D printing and topology optimization can deliver objects with minimum mass, which will save money in raw materials. Topology optimization and additive manufacturing are two techniques that together have the potential to help you create a new generation of exciting products. While additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is widely used by product development organizations to create prototypes from digital models, topology optimization has been restricted to companies with extensive CAE resources, such as automotive and aerospace manufacturers.

    The promise of marrying these techniques is not just theoretical. A number of organizations have demonstrated the benefits of combining additive layer manufacturing (ALM) with topology optimization design. For example, research at EADS has showed that an Airbus A320 hinge bracket could be significantly reduced in weight by using ALM in tandem with topology optimization. The optimization process enabled the designers to quickly hone in on the most efficient, lightweight structure, while the use of ALM created further weight reductions by minimizing waste in the manufacturing process. Using these techniques together, the EADS design engineers had greater freedom to explore alternatives while cutting overall development time and costs.

    Software helps you design for 3D printing manufacturability

    The article is about a proprietary software product, but there are open source options to play around with and extend into real products.

  3. From the makerpro newsletter:
    IBM: 3D Printing Ecosystem Going "Exponential"

    IBM is engaged in a major study of how 3D printing will change manufacturing. The results won't be released until later this year. But we got a sneak peek at the highlights last week when Paul Brody (@pbrody), vice president and Global Industry Leader of Electronics at IBM, gave a keynote presentation at a Siemens Global Innovation Summit.

    His message: 3D printing is more than a manufacturing technology, it is a software-enabled ecosystem.

    This ecosystem includes 3D printers plus a number of additional elements: CAD applications for designing machinery and items, much of it available online as software as a service; scanners for bringing in whole parts quickly; and applications that allow even novices to develop custom devices.

    There seems to be a lot of SaaS startups (or new products from established players) in this space: Parametric Parts, Upverter, Airstone, Autodesk Fusion 360

    Of course with SaaS, you own nothing, and the rug can be pulled at any moment...

    Here's a Free option.