If hitting the print button and producing a solid object on your own seems like science fiction, think again.

“Now you can buy a 3D printer for your home at less than $1,000,” Scott Deutsch says. But in the grand scheme of the technology’s capabilities, “That is just a small pebble on the beach.”

Deutsch is a spokesperson for the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, which has as one of its initiatives America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. Additive manufacturing is the name given to the process of making three-dimensional objects from a digital file.

Metal objects produced by the Arcam 3D printer at Carnegie Mellon University
Metal objects produced by the Arcam 3D printer at Carnegie Mellon University. Courtesy Carnegie Mellon University.

The technology has been around since the 1980s, Deutsch explained, but its application really has taken off in the past several years after patents started to expire, providing opportunities for more companies to enter the market.

In the Pittsburgh region, they’re entering in a big way. General Electric, for example, is building a $32 million additive manufacturing facility in Findlay Township, and Alcoa is undertaking a $60 million expansion of its research and development center in Upper Burrell to accelerate the development of advanced 3D-printing materials and processes.

And in July, ExOne opened its new state-of-the-art Design and Re-Engineering for Additive Manufacturing Center located at its North Huntingdon Township facility.

“I don’t think people realize that Pittsburgh has this strength in additive manufacturing,” Erica Fuchs, associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says. She is part of a growing number of university faculty members who are conducting research and providing instruction on behalf of the technology.

In 2012, Fuchs and fellow Carnegie Mellon engineering professors Jack Beuth and Gary Fedder played a key role in helping to establish Youngstown, Ohio-based America Makes, a public-private partnership with member organizations from industry, academia, government, and workforce and economic development resources.

“The role that is truly exciting, that CMU is playing and has the opportunity to continue to play, is helping to bring all these linkages together,” Fuchs says.

Beuth is director of the Next Manufacturing Center at Carnegie Mellon, which conducts research into additive manufacturing while also serving as a testing facility for developing tools for a variety of complex manufacturing processes.

“Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned to make a major impact in the field,” he says, noting the growing presence of manufacturers in the region combined with academic resources and customers for the products. “We really have the whole ecosystem for additive manufacturing, with everyone working collaboratively.”

General Electric's $42 million additive manufacturing facility under construction in Findlay Township.
General Electric’s $42 million additive manufacturing facility under construction in Findlay Township. Photo by Harry Funk

Carnegie Mellon has established collaborations with numerous companies in the industry, Beuth says including Kennametal, based in Unity Township; Covestro, formerly Bayer MaterialScience, in Robinson Township; and RTI International Metals, which was acquired this year by Alcoa.

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization dedicated to helping small manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania improve their competitive performance, is touting the technology as a viable educational opportunity.

“Additive manufacturing is growing in the Pittsburgh region and being embraced by large and small manufacturing companies to build parts that would be difficult or impossible with traditional manufacturing methods,” Petra Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of Catalyst Connection, says. “This 3-D technology appeals to students who are interested in careers using creativity and cutting-edge innovation.”

At work at ExOne in Pittsburgh

In another collaborative effort, engineering faculty members and students at Robert Morris University teamed up with Leetsdale-based Schroeder Industries to use 3-D printing to produce prototype filters, which Schroeder sells for uses that include cleaning hydraulic fluids and diesel fuel.

This summer, two separate University of Pittsburgh research projects to improve design development for structures in additive manufacturing received more than $1.7 million in funding through America Makes.

Albert To, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, is principal investigator for the project Integrated Design Tool Development for High Potential AM Applications. The intent is to create software that can be rapidly commercialized, which in turn would help companies minimize design time, lower manufacturing cost and reducing time to market for new product development, To explained through a university press release.

M. Ravi Shankar, associate professor of industrial engineering, is working on a project for improving 3D-printing support structures, which hold parts in place and dissipate heat during the process.

The technology has widespread industrial application, such as General Electric’s use of additive manufacturing in its aerospace division by printing fuel nozzle interiors for the jet engines. Each engine has 20 nozzles, and they can be made in one piece, giving the engines greater durability, lighter weight and better fuel efficiency, according to information released by the corporation.

In the medical industry, additive manufacturing is being used to produce customized prosthetics and implants.

One advantage of the technology is that it increases the ability to implement new concepts, designs and innovations quickly, which in turn improves the speed of getting new products to market. But with rapid turnover comes a growing need to establish inspection and quality standards for additive manufacturing products.

“We also have people looking at the policy side,” Fuchs says of her Carnegie Mellon colleagues, explaining that the issue is “a delicate balancing act of the government working with academics. We don’t want to prevent economic development.”

This article is the first in a year-long series on exploring the new manufacturing in the Pittsburgh region. 

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Harry Funk has been a professional journalist in Western Pennsylvania for 30 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.