Northeast Ohio wants to position itself as an innovative hub for additive manufacturing —think the Silicon Valley of 3-D printing.
The region already has a strong manufacturing base, a variety of university and institutional resources and connections to the end-markets already using 3-D printing technology, like biomedical and aerospace. But there are big hurdles to overcome, including a lack of software initiatives in this space and limited venture funding, according to a recent report from the Youngstown Business Incubator and America Makes in Youngstown and Team NEO and Magnet in Cleveland.
This “asset map” offers a comprehensive look at the existing efforts in additive manufacturing in Northeast Ohio, the barriers to continued adoption of the technology, and the potential benefits to the region.
As Team NEO was thinking about innovation hubs, the group realized including additive manufacturing was a “no brainer,” in part because of its connection to the automotive and aerospace industries the region already serves, said Tim Fahey, the organization's vice president of industry and innovation. And the region already is home to America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
The institute, established in 2012, was the first in a group of national institutes designed to speed up innovation and commercialization in targeted technologies and industries.
Scott Deutsch, communications manager for the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, the Blairsville, Pa.-based group that manages America Makes, said it made sense for the group to participate and inform the findings of the report. He also said he hopes to see more regions do this kind of mapping across the country.
America Makes is an “amazing asset” in the region, said Barb Ewing, chief operating officer of the Youngstown Business Incubator, but it's mainly focused on the actual technology of additive manufacturing, as opposed to the economic development possibilities highlighted in the study. And regardless, it doesn't make sense to depend on just one organization if Northeast Ohio wants to be known as the national hub for additive manufacturing. Instead, Ewing said, “you need all of your players on the field.”
Right now, the asset map indicates that Northeast Ohio has an opportunity to become this hub, as additive manufacturing work is currently scattered “here, there and everywhere,” Ewing said. In particular, if Northeast Ohio can think of itself as part of a larger Cleveland-Pittsburgh “TechBelt,” it can compete with other large regions when necessary.
“The Northeast Ohio region is ideally suited to become a national leader in additive manufacturing,” the report stated. “There is an unusually high concentration of universities training design talent, a historically strong manufacturing base of industry and workforce, world-class materials and biomedical assets, and a growing presence of innovators and innovation service providers.”
The main application for additive manufacturing right now is prototyping, but the study also highlights opportunities in direct products and tooling. The main barriers to the continued adoption of this technology are related to production and cost margins, the report stated. Companies also are averse to failure, and more would be interested if they were shown that the process was effective.
Fahey said overcoming these barriers will take education. Many of the processors don't know how to get into additive manufacturing or don't see how it applies to their business, so the cluster intends to put on workshops and other training opportunities that highlight the research and demonstrate the business cases for additive manufacturing.
Ewing said education at the university level and in professional development settings will be important to overcoming the design barrier, as well. It's not just about when and how to use additive manufacturing, but also how to design to best take advantage of the technology.
The study's seven-year plan includes five main goals and steps to achieve them. The goals are as follows:
• Forming a regional innovation cluster.
• Expanding the use of additive manufacturing through “investments in technical support, capital equipment, workforce development and industry-based educational programs.”
• Developing education and workforce training initiatives.
• Building out the supply chains in the automotive, biomedical and aerospace industries.
• Creating a framework for makers and entrepreneurs to thrive .
Ewing said it will be important to provide some structure — through events and social media — to the cluster, so people stay interested. Fahey said that the individual organizations have some existing funding they can direct toward cluster activities, but it's going to need to seek a larger source of funding going forward. Ewing said the U.S. Department of Commerce is already looking into ways to support economic development around the institutes.
In it for the long term
In addition to the economic development groups and the manufacturing and tech-focused organizations involved in the study, a number of local companies took part as part of the advisory council and “voice-of-the-customer” interviews. Companies like The Technology House in Streetsboro, Ohio, and rp+m in Avon Lake, Ohio, have been working in 3-D printing for years and viewed the opportunity as a good one for networking and marketing.
In the short-term, Fahey said that if processors began using more additive manufacturing in their tooling — a high-growth area for the technology — it would help make them more productive and competitive. That may not create jobs, but it could strengthen the manufacturing base, Fahey said. Team NEO is focused on growing the regional economy, which makes this project a natural fit.
And if the group is successful in positioning Northeast Ohio as an additive manufacturing hub, it could draw people to the region.
“We think this becomes a great attraction tool long term,” Fahey said.
This study was supported by a $98,000 grant from the Fund for our Economic Future, awarded in November. President Brad Whitehead said in an emailed statement that a number of assets help to make the region competitive, but that one — America Makes — has been “underutilized” so far. “This report tells us that the opportunities in additive manufacturing are immense for our region and Northeast Ohio can strengthen its manufacturing future and establish a leadership role in additive manufacturing by initiating partnerships with local businesses and neighboring regions that offer complementary assets,” Whitehead said in the statement.
“The good news: Our region is good at forming and cultivating partnerships — in fact, it was the pre-existing partnerships within the region that led to the federal designation of Youngstown as the host of America Makes,” he said. “We now have a roadmap on how to take advantage of this asset.”