Additive manufacturing/3D printing is transforming the world of manufacturing. At first, it made it possible to get rapid prototypes of new products, which has helped inventors and entrepreneurs launch their businesses more rapidly and obtain inventors. Now, with the ability to make metal parts using various additive manufacturing processes, it has enabled companies to make complex geometry metal parts in low quantities without having to invest in the expensive tooling required for investment casting.

I recently had the opportunity to interviewed Ola Harrysson, Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, who started teaching manufacturing technologies in 2002. He started an additive manufacturing lab that year, and in 2014, the university formed the Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics (CAMAL), of which he is now co-director. The website states: "The Additive Manufacturing and Logistics group serves industry through fundamental and applied research in the additive technologies and an active program of technology transfer. Our group has developed and continues to develop core research, non-core research, and technology transfer activities."

Harrysson said, "At first, all we had was a stereo lithography machine making prototypes out of plastic materials. At that time, the laser sintering machines couldn't produce fully dense parts and were only used for prototyping. We were interested in making fully dense metal parts by 3D printing. Electron beam melting (EBM) was the first technology that could produce a fully dense part. We bought our first machine in 2003 from a Swedish company (Arcam) and were the first to have such a machine in the United States."

He explained, "The process of electron beam melting by this machine was really developed for making tools for injection molding and die casting. But when we arranged to buy the machine, the order was made conditional on the basis that the Swedish company had to agree to develop Titanium (Ti) as a material that could be used, because we wanted to use it to make custom implants for medical applications. Once the company developed Ti for use, the interest in the machine accelerated."

He added, "When we first got the machine, there was only one material we could use, and we didn't know if it would work. For the first two years, we had visitors every week. All the big aerospace companies and people from NASA came to visit. As other companies bought the machines, we started to collaborate with the new customers in the U.S., such as Boeing and NASA in Huntsville, Ala." 

Continuing, he said, "We have worked with about 25 different alloys over the years. We are considered to be one of the best groups in the country for the process parameters for electron beam melting machines for 3D printing. We have three EBM machines and 10-12 polymer machines now. Companies come to us and tell us that they are casting parts out of a certain material, and we work with them to see if that alloy can be used by our EBM machine." 

He noted, "Aerospace applications are a big part of our work, and we are working with several metal powder companies that make parts for the powder metal industry to see if the alloys they use can be used for 3D printing."

When I asked about the finish of the part, he said, "We are also working on improving the finishing of parts. Once you have 3D printed a part, it still has to be machined to get the right surface finish. We have developed a software solution named DASH Manufacturing (Digital Additive and Subtractive Hybrid). The software does both the preplanning and the post machining planning. It automates the process of making fully functional metal parts."

I told him I have attended three two-hour workshops on additive manufacturing so am familiar with direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and selective laser sintering (SLS) for polymers using the same technology. I asked what are the differences between electron beam melting compared to laser sintering, and he replied, "Both EBM and DMLS are doing complete melting of the metal powder so there is no sintering anymore. Basically both systems work the same, but the EBM has a much more powerful beam so the deposition rate is much higher. The DMLS gives you higher resolution but is slower. The DMLS provides finer surface finish, but if you have to finish machine the part then that doesn't matter that much. It is easier to build internal cooling channels in a DMLS compared to EBM. The EBM process provides stress free parts while the DMLS parts need heat treatment before you can remove them from the build substrate. Some metals work better in the EBM and some metals work better in the DMLS, so it all depends on what you are doing."

I asked if graduate and undergraduate students work in the center, and he responded, "The labs in the center are used for lab activities by both graduate and undergraduate students. There is an introduction to 3D printing class and another that is focused on materials use in additive manufacturing. At the undergraduate level, the labs are used in a product development class, as well as a number of other courses. We have about 200 students using the labs in the fall and about 100 in the spring. Some of the work the students do is structured as services, and we have contracts with companies. We also get research grants from government agencies, such as NASA, DARPA, ONR, DOE and NSF. Currently, we have 26 students on our payroll for these service contracts and research grants."

3D Printing Firms Moving to North Carolina

To learn more about how this early involvement with metal additive manufacturing impacted the region, I interviewed Christopher Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina Corporation (EDPNC), who stated, "North Carolina’s growing 3D printing presence is connected to its rich educational and research resources that are fueling innovation in 3D printed products and processes. The state has had some notable economic development project announcements in the past two years that are 3D printing related.

Chung elaborated, "We have quite a few companies locating plants in the region from other areas. They include Minnesota-based ProtoLabs, which became one of the largest 3D printing manufacturing providers in the world when it opened up a 70,000 sq. ft. facility in Cary. Earlier this year, 3D printed prosthetics manufacturer UNYQ opened a new office in Charlotte, NC. Swiss company Oerlikon announced it will be expanding its global additive manufacturing business by opening a new R&D and production facility for advanced 3D printed parts in the Charlotte metro area.  

Another company is Fusion3, a growing company in Greensboro that makes a $5,000 printer that can prototype or build large parts for commercial and educational customers. The company says its affordable printer performs as well as expensive industrial 3D printers costing $20,000 and up. North Carolina is also home to the engineering software component of 3D Systems in the Research Triangle, one of the leading providers of 3D imaging software. While they also manufacture 3-D printers and on-demand parts for aerospace, automotive and other industries, that production occurs at various global facilities.”

He added, "There is a lot going on across the state. In Mooresville, there is a company, CRP USA, LLC, which makes a lot of high precision parts for motor sports and satellites using additive manufacturing. We are also seeing some pretty novel applications. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is developing bioengineering applications for 3D printing of tissue and body parts (like ears). Additive manufacturing/3D printing is really applicable for low-volume components and body parts. As we get more companies involved, a critical mass will form over time, and North Carolina will be in a position to become a leading region because of the great amount of activity going on in this space."

He explained, "North Carolina is becoming one of the fastest growing states. It continues to attract more people. Since 2000, the population has increased by over 2,000,000, going from about 8,000,000 to 10,000,000. With mountains in the western part of the state and the seacoast on the east, 80% of the population resides along the I-85 corridor. Manufacturing is about 10% of the state GDP. North Carolina is the largest manufacturing state in the southeastern United States. Automotive, aerospace, chemicals, pharmaceutical, IT, and biotech are the major industries in the Raleigh-Durham region." 

I asked if they are actively recruiting additive manufacturing/3D printing companies to relocate in North Carolina, and he responded, "While it is an important sector, the universe of this type company is a very narrow slice of the whole manufacturing industry. We are looking at a very broad range of companies to recruit. We aren't quite at the stage of recruiting this type of company. As it becomes more prevalent, we will capitalize on the opportunities in this field."

When I asked about training and workforce development for additive manufacturing, he responded, "Quite a few community colleges are developing curriculum and training for employees in the additive manufacturing field. These colleges can rapidly modify their curriculum to match what employers need. Over the past 20 years, we lost a lot of textile and furniture manufacturers. We continue to hire from the workers who lost jobs at these types of manufacturers, but it is getting more difficult to fill positions in certain skills. We need to have a value stream of education to provide the workforce manufacturers need."

I asked if there are any high schools that are teaching manufacturing skills, and he said, "There is a high school in Wilson that has focuses on additive manufacturing and is linked to a community college. The big thing is getting parents to understand what manufacturing is today so that they will be interested in their kids going into manufacturing as a career. There are local manufacturers who work with high school guidance counselors and provide tours to students, so they can see what today's manufacturing is like. Manufacturing Day has become an important way to provide this link between schools and manufacturers."

With the strong research and development activities of North Carolina's universities in additive manufacturing and the visionary leadership of its state economic development corporation, it is likely that North Carolina will continue to be a leading hub of additive manufacturing and3D printing in the foreseeable future.