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September 13, 2017

A Futuristic Reality

David Clayton with Center for Manufacturing InnovationThe idea of 3-D printing once called to mind futuristic fantasies like The Jetsons, in which a finished product might miraculously appear from a metal chute. The reality of modern additive manufacturing is quite different, but no less impressive. 
 
Additive manufacturing is the building of three-dimensional objects by adding layer upon layer of material, most often plastic or metal. Typically, the first step in 3-D printing is using modeling software, often called CAD (Computer-Aided Design), to create a design. Next the 3-D printer reads the CAD data and lays down multiple layers of material, one at a time, to fabricate the designed object. 
 
“This technology takes x, y and z coordinates of a model and prints it using, most often, a plastic material,” says Jonathan Scrivner, STEAM educator for Pickens County School District. “It deposits layers of plastic or metal at the coordinates to make the 3-D shape.” In short, additive manufacturing allows users to speed up the design and development process, adding characteristics, functions and innovations to their designs that were previously unimaginable – often saving time and money in the meantime.


Early Adopters of Additive Manufacturing

The Upstate of South Carolina is a leader in utilizing this technology for industrial applications, according to David Clayton, director of the Greenville Technical College Center for Manufacturing Innovation
 
“The types of industries we have here in the Upstate, automotive and aerospace particularly, lend themselves to this technology. The strength that we’ve developed in those arenas may help us attract more such companies in the future, as we have a strong overlap of the skills and technology required,” Clayton says. “Upstate companies use this for design purposes and in making custom pieces. We also have students mastering this technology before they even start their careers – and there is much more in store.”
 
The applications for additive manufacturing technology are many. Upstate users employ 3-D printers to aid as a visualization tool in design, to create highly customized products, to expedite industrial tooling and, as with many burgeoning technologies, to educate and entertain students and hobbyists alike.
 

Making Visions Tangible

For Cornell Dubilier, a capacitor manufacturer based in Liberty, additive manufacturing became an integral part of their work after it purchased a 3-D printer four years ago.
 
“A lot of our design process involves critical and abstract thinking around whatever problems we are trying to address. We’ve got to test it beforehand, and a 3-D model allows us to see, touch and analyze something tangible,” says Patrick Lark, who leads Cornell’s mechanical design group. “The time to get materials, molds and machine parts in makes the process cumbersome and costly, so additive manufacturing gives us the freedom to try out new solutions as quickly as we can design them. If we want to test something, we start printing a part and move on to other tasks while it quietly prints in the background.”
 
Sealevel Systems, a Pickens County industrial computer solutions designer and manufacturer, has used additive manufacturing since 2011 to fine-tune their designs and ensure quality results. “This technology allows us to think more creatively and experiment with what could be the most effective solutions,” says Charlie Phelps, Sealevel CAD operator. “The stakes are lower” without the long lead times and steep costs traditionally involved in prototyping, he notes. 
 
“Printing this way takes a little bit of strain out of the design work. We know quickly when something should work – and then go more aggressively, working full-force to the solution.” 
 

Investing in Technology and the Upstate

GE Power is not new to the Upstate: since establishing a facility here nearly 50 years ago, the business has expanded from 200 to just over 3,000 employees spread across its 400-acre Greenville campus. Last year, recognizing that additive manufacturing was progressing from a novelty to a true, commercialized offering, GE invested $73 million in opening its Advanced Manufacturing Works (AMW) facility. The project was part of a larger $100 million investment in the Greenville campus. 

The AMW facility employs up to 80 Upstate workers and is co-located with GE’s traditional manufacturing facilities; many of the components developed and 3-D printed there go directly into the gas turbines manufactured next door. Open for nearly 18 months, the facility has now manufactured thousands of components put into use on its plant floors.
 
“GE’s additive manufacturing efforts have really progressed since the opening of our Advanced Manufacturing Works facility in Greenville in early 2016,” says Kurt Goodwin, general manager of advanced manufacturing at GE Power. “We’ve helped our production factories succeed in multiple areas, including the ability to deliver optimized programs and tools. We’ve even started our first additive-printing cell that has delivered thousands of gas turbine parts already – including specific parts to respond to urgent customer requests that could not have been accomplished with traditional manufacturing methods.”
 
The AMW program, like other industrial applications of additive manufacturing, serves as a test lab for developing components and parts to meet specific consumer needs. The unique advantage of GE’s facility is that, with its proximity to the gas turbine production lines, it can test and try these components in the actual manufacturing environment, ensuring that the right minds and the right technology are in the exact right place to create innovative solutions.
 
“Our talent base in the Upstate has been a significant factor in our decision to grow additive manufacturing in Greenville,” says Goodwin. “It’s been a huge achievement and we’re excited for what’s ahead.” 
 
Much of what’s ahead in additive manufacturing involves continually evolving technology, increasing applications across industries and a focus on educating up-and-coming innovators as early as middle school. As with our region’s use of additive manufacturing in companies of every size, the Upstate is leading the way in bringing 3-D printing into its curricula. In our next post, we will explore how just how classrooms across our counties are benefiting from this technology. 

CLICK HERE TO WATCH: Adam Savage, host of "Mythbusters" and "Tested" and "Innovation Nation" correspondent Alie Ward visit GE's Additive Manufacturing Works in Greenville. 
 
TOPICS: "Existing Industry", Innovation, Manufacturing, "Technical College System", Technology
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