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States, Universities Support Lean Innovation Approach Driving 3D Printing Renaissance

June 26, 2013

Industry support for additive manufacturing is exploding as startups find new ways to market the technology to businesses. States and universities are taking advantage of this growing trend to form partnerships with companies that support the lean innovation approach is driving the 3D printing renaissance.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Stratasys, a major 3D printing company that focuses on additive manufacturing, acquired MakerBot in a deal worth $403 million in stock. MakerBot, which specializes in the production of consumer 3D printers, will retain its brand and operate as a subsidiary. The move positions Stratasys to push for broader adoption of 3D printing across industries. MakerBot has sold 22,000 3D printers since 2009, but because of rapid market growth, half of those sales have come in the past 9 months. This has propelled the company's stock to rise 76 percent over the past 12 months.

The MIT Technology Review provides a background on the argument for a 3D printing renaissance: manufacturing was previously the domain of large companies and trained experts because of the expertise, equipment, and costs associated with production. Now, because the process of making things has shifted towards digital, the associated costs of production have plummeted and industrial processes and technologies now can be shared through online collaboration. These trends are driving companies that use 3D printing technology to adopt a lean innovation approach that supports collaboration between industry, universities, and government.

Along the East River waterfront of Queens, NY, the 3D printing company Shapeways has moved into a 25,000 square-foot warehouse and launched what it refers to as “the factory of the future.” The company fabricates customer-ordered designs while also providing a cloud service for customers to share design files and directly sell designs while outsourcing production and shipping to Shapeways.

Earlier this month, MakerBot opened a new 55,000 square-foot facility in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn that will be used for production, warehouse, and shipping space. While MakerBot employees build each consumer 3D printer by hand, the new space also will include a 3D printing incubator as well as a “bot farm” for servicing corporate partners such as Nokia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. MakerBot's main offices are located in the MetroTech Center in downtown Brooklyn and the company participates in the Made in NY Initiative, one of over 1,000 tech companies that participate in the program.

Startups like MakerBot are aiming to position cheap 3D printers as invaluable tools for homes and offices. While MakerBot focuses on hardware, Shapeways focuses on software development. This allows the company to serve both a growing base of corporate partners that outsource production to Shapeways, as well as building a customer base of industrial artisans that focus on design and marketing 3D products while relying on Shapeway's printing and shipping capability. Despite the company's rapid growth, the Queens facility will top out employment at about 50 people.

But while interest in 3D printing continues to grow, there is no consensus on how the technology will be adopted within the global economy. Will our economy be redefined by the rise of industrial artisans who work in thousands of niche markets, will large companies capture the market by using cloud technology, or will consumers continue to drive off-shoring by ordering cheaper 3D services from China and other countries with cheaper labor?

To support American innovation and competitiveness, there is a growing consensus that individual makers and small startups will have to collaborate with each other and with large industrial firms to build nimble economies of scale. Universities and government are stepping up to help forge those connections.

In the state of New York, the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corp. recently invested $1 million in the Hudson Valley 3D Printing Initiative. The initiative will establish an Advanced Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz that will give students and faculty the opportunity to work directly with industry to develop new technologies and manufacturing techniques. The initiative is funded with state money, as well donations from local investors and a $250,000 grant from the Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation.

Meanwhile, the University of Connecticut has partnered with Pratt & Whitney to open an additive manufacturing innovation center. It is the first 3D printing R&D facility in the Northeast. Students and faculty will use the center's equipment to develop new fabrication techniques and rapidly prototype new technologies. The Pratt & Whitney Center is supported by the Obama administration's new Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Initiative, which encourages collaboration between universities, industry, and the federal government to boost American competitiveness and innovation.

While the market for 3D printing technology continues to rapidly expand, universities and government will have a role to play in ensuring that additive manufacturing fosters job creation and supports national competitiveness and innovation.

Connecticut, New Yorkadditive mfg, higher ed