The disruption of supply chains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is leading U.S. companies to rethink their manufacturing operations. We relearned an old lesson – agility is vital.

Companies are examining if they have the capacity to move manufacturing processes and systems online so work can continue in different locations, or if they are able to pivot and manufacture products that are needed now in addition to or in place of their products for which demand is very low. Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, can help suppliers adjust and meet the need for on-demand production.

The AM industry is maturing. By the end of 2020, the global industry is expected to be worth more than $15 billion. By 2025, the market is predicted to rise to $47 billion. The U.S. is the world’s leader with the most installed industrial AM systems. The federal government is supporting AM research in an effort to drive innovation, strengthen the supply chain and outpace global competitors. While these activities play out, the Pittsburgh region is establishing itself as a leader in AM, anchored by its universities and in partnership with industry, government and the region’s nonprofits and foundations.

AM presents many opportunities and challenges. Reshoring supply chains enables manufacturing growth, but what works in the long and short term? What factors affect costs and timing? Is product integrity maintained? Answering these questions can be difficult, and innovators must collaborate.

Empowered through collaboration, Carnegie Mellon University has become a world leader in AM. Our Next Manufacturing Center leverages knowledge from across disciplines to develop a holistic approach to AM that includes design optimization, materials selection and characterization, process parameter mapping, software development, final part inspection and qualification, as well as the application of computational methods, data analytics, computer vision and machine learning. The Center has an engaged on-campus community that includes 100 faculty, post-docs, students and staff. It is strengthened by a diverse set of Consortium members and nearly 100 yearly interactions across industry, government and academia.

Our fundamental and applied research in 3D printing of metals, ceramics, polymers, biomaterials and electronics is of great interest to industry, especially our work in metals. The 3D metal AM process is an extremely sophisticated one. It requires specialized machines that fuse metal feedstock typically in the form of powders in either a laser powder bed or an electron-beam powder bed. Carnegie Mellon is one of a few academic institutions in the nation that has both types of metal 3D-printing capabilities.

Our approach is comprehensive. In addition to engineering, we are making contributions in technology commercialization, policy, security, education and workforce development.

The demand for training in the operation of AM equipment is rapidly increasing. As companies make the decision to incorporate or outsource AM for prototyping and/or manufacturing of products, the need for appropriately skilled technicians, operators and engineers becomes immediate. At the same time, the lack of available workforce has been identified as one of the greatest barriers to adoption and implementation of AM. The Next Manufacturing Center is providing engineering students the opportunity to develop AM knowledge and skills that will set them apart when they graduate and compete for jobs in the AM field.

We are building a new workforce through education. We offer undergraduate courses and a Master’s degree that gives students hands-on experience designing, adapting and building parts using AM technologies. To support those already in industry, the Next Manufacturing Center offers workforce training, including introductory and part-specific course sessions for technical industry professionals, as well as opportunities to work with our AM experts on design and manufacturing issues in the university’s state-of-the-art facilities.

Now is the time to seize additive manufacturing’s momentum, and the voice of industry will determine the rise of new markets and jobs.