Alcoa's investment in a $60 million, state-of-the-art, metallic powder production center in Upper Burrell reflects an aggressive confidence that additive manufacturing will help position the company as a leading player in the aerospace industry.
The lightweight metals company is betting big on additive manufacturing, the industrial variant of 3-D printing technology, to produce feedstock – titanium, nickel and aluminum powders – for the fabrication of stronger, lighter-weight parts for aerospace customers like Airbus.
With additive manufacturing, digital data is used to build components of a product, layer by layer. Several industries, especially metal makers, see the technology as the future of manufacturing, says Jack Beuth, director of the NextManufacturing Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
While the process has become a viable option for manufacturers in the last decade, some critics believe the technology has struggled to live up to the hype. That will change in the next five years as the technology improves and is shown to be a faster and more profitable way to build things, says Beuth.
"It will be a game changer, especially in the aerospace and automobile space," Beuth adds.
The Alcoa operation focuses on metallic powders, a component in the additive process, and an integral part of the production supply chain, says Rod Heiple, director of R&D for engineered products and solutions for Alcoa.
"Alcoa is uniquely qualified in the creation of customized powder feedstock for 3-D printing," says Heiple. "This is an investment in a process."
The powder-processing center, which opened in July in a new 19,000 square-foot building at the Alcoa Technology Center in Westmoreland County, is expected to create 100 full-time positions for material specialists, design experts and process and inspection technologists by 2017.
It's the largest lightweight metals research center in the world, says Heiple, "because we have the highest density of metallurgists and researchers here focused on discovery and processing."
Alcoa plans to develop a range of additive techniques as the process moves from research and development into large-scale deployment, says Heiple. The company recently unveiled its Ampliforge process, a hybrid technique that combines additive manufacturing and advanced forging that is being piloted in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
“In addition to unique material characteristics, it adds strength and toughness that further differentiates our product." Heiple says."It’s a clever, innovative way to combine an emerging technology with existing technology.”
Advancing new technologies isn't new at Alcoa, which has been synonymous for more than a century with lightweight metals – especially aluminum – and advanced manufacturing methods, Heiple says. Metal alloy development and metal powder production are a next logical step in that process.
Research into 3-D print manufacturing has tooled along for two decades at the R&D level. The process allows companies like Alcoa to reduce lead time and the costs associated with moving prototypes out to customers quickly for evaluation.
"Alcoa sees it very clearly," adds Beuth. "The powder space is really big. Alcoa is trying to corner that market to make parts for customers like Airbus and GE. They see a niche."
Assisting in the development is Carnegie Mellon's NextManufacturing Center. The 18-month-old additive manufacturing research center formed a consortium this month with local companies to advance the technology for widespread adoption. General Electric, Alcoa, Bosch, ANSYS and Ingersoll Rand are among those on board.
"With additive, you don't have to create tooling to make a part," Beuth says. "It allows you to change the design to almost anything. If you make a part and it changes the performance, you may not care how much it costs."
For example, GE is turning out 10,000-20,000 fuel nozzles a year for its jet engine. By changing the design, they've made the nozzles more efficient.
"In the jet engine business, whoever has the most efficient engine gets those engines sold," Beuth says.