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3D printing could catapult US manufacturing

August 31, 2023
By: Jonathan Dillon

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, has so far been used for simple construction. In this process, a computer creates three-dimensional objects by depositing materials, usually in layers. But now, the National Institute for Standards in Technology (NIST) is working to unlock additive manufacturing’s potential. For example, earlier this year, NIST researchers worked with polyelectrolyte complexes (PECs), resins with properties useful in fire protection, food packaging, drug delivery, insulation, and more. The scientists incorporated a technique that uses light to solidify a liquid resin, layer by layer, into a three-dimensional design.

Advocates for 3D printing say with 3D printing, U.S. manufacturing could forge better products while establishing independence from foreign suppliers and reducing its carbon footprint. And in areas like medicine, additive manufacturing could eventually help Americans get the vital organs they need more quickly, reducing the chance of rejection and ultimately saving lives, all while dramatically cutting the cost of surgeries.

The transportation of finished products from one place to another currently accounts for approximately 30% of that product’s carbon footprint, according to Manufacturing Tomorrow. But when 3D printing is used, this drops drastically. With 3D printing, manufacturing can be onshored, and products made closer to their core market rather than manufactured overseas then shipped to their destination. Traditional manufacturing methods generate significant waste in the form of scrap material that can’t be reused. With 3D printing, material waste can be reduced by up to 90%.

Additionally, 3D printing can allow American chip manufacturers to save money on supplies and reduce dependency on outside shipments. Traditionally, large quantities of products are crafted in advance and stored for future demand. All About Circuits notes that one of the benefits of 3D printing is that companies will not need to keep a bulk supply of certain passive components (resistors, inductors, capacitors, etc.) used in chip production. Instead, supplies might be 3D printed as needed, reducing dependence on the supply chain, and making parts cheaper for the manufacturer, the engineer, and the consumer. 

Although the technology does save manufacturers time and money, 3D printing still has its limits. The materials that can be used are limited, and some are still under development. The main preferred material for 3D printing is plastic which can quickly and easily be deposited in melted layers to form the final product. However, plastic may vary in strength capacity and may not be the best for some components. Some companies offer metal as a material, but the final product parts are often not as dense as they would be with traditional manufacturing methods. Other manufacturers use specialized materials, including glass and gold, but these are yet to be commercialized.

While 3D printing is often used for smaller-scale projects, and injection molding for larger jobs, 3D printing still uses about 6 times as much energy as injection molding to produce the same amount of plastic. This difference in energy consumption can be even greater when a printer uses lasers to cut materials such as metal and gold.

In a move toward the advancement of U.S. 3D printing, the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM) and America Makes earlier this year announced a new directed project funded by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering Manufacturing Technology Office and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) worth a total of $11.7M. And just last week, another call was issued for $11.75M in funding.

advanced manufacturing, energy, nist