The overall nature of manufacturing has begun to shift, with mass production potentially taking a backseat to mass customization.

And with industrial engineering becoming increasingly integral towards combating challenges and capitalizing on emerging opportunities, one of the sectors seeing the most growth in use across industries is additive manufacturing. The North Carolina State Industrial and Systems Engineering Department (ISE) has been at the forefront of research regarding such and Dr. Ola Harrysson, one of the department’s primary professors, talks about the goals he and his fellow colleagues hope to achieve, as well as additive manufacturing’s integral role in the future of U.S. manufacturing.
The Obama Administration has continuously pledged its support in forging high-tech manufacturing advancements through a national network of research institutes to drive collaboration between industry and universities. The N.C State ISE received a grant of $140 million over five years, as part of this commitment and have used it to spur their recent research and developments.

“Industrial engineering is driving the evolution of the manufacturing industry and bringing more opportunities to the U.S.” Harrysson says, adding, “Industrial and systems engineers are able to turn scientific discoveries into financial and societal impact for the manufacturing industry and beyond, and it’s our goal to facilitate this.”

Through this partnership, Harrysson says one of primary endeavors of NC State’s ISE department is to develop next generation electric grid components via 3-D printing. “With these power modules, the difficulty up front is the mixing of metals, ceramics, and polymers all into one system,” he says, but adds, “In response to this, we are looking at technologies that marry these materials together and can successfully print them as one, as well as developing properties that enhance key factors like the components’ cooling rate and their subsequent operational efficiency.”

The NC State ISE’s research into additive manufacturing goes back further than most institutes, representing the world’s first user of the Electronic Beam Melting process (EBM) in 2003. They have used their experience working with such to lead the way in research surrounding the use of such. As a result, a broader endeavor for them with regards to additive manufacturing has been the potential remedying of the finishing issues that comes with 3-D printing metal components.

Harrysson says that with the e-beam and laser-based models, metal fabrications processes may only require 24-48 hours to print the actual metal parts, but the need for finishing can add up to 6 additional weeks before being completed. “In response to this, we’re in the stages of developing a fully automatic finishing system for these processes, combining the flexibility of additive manufacturing with the precision of surface finishing that you would get out of a CNC machine, for instance,” Harrysson says.

He adds that the program they are developing will be software-based and perform much of the users’ planning and generation of tool paths automatically. “We’re really trying to create a system that will reduce the need for a highly skilled machinist or CNC programmer, because that’s what really takes up most of the time in today’s production environment,” he says, adding, “the whole idea is to establish this system so that anyone can produce the metal parts they need without time constraints, and you can imagine the value of something like that on submarines, or aircraft carriers.”

While not at completion yet, Harrysson says that as they inch closer towards achieving this goal, they are already receiving interest from major players in the manufacturing arena, particularly in the spare parts market.

“John Deere reached out us, as they are looking to get into additive manufacturing themselves, and wanted to see if they could integrate it into how they develop and manage their spare parts.” John Deere promises to supply its customers with spare parts in any of their purchased models for the next 25 years, and although this represents a key positive trait of their identity, it leads to an overflow of stock products in their warehouses. “Because of their well-established reputation for quality, most of these spare parts aren’t ever needed, and they came to us and said, we’re making too many of these parts for it to be a viable process, and the fact is that most of them will never be used and will just be thrown away after 25 years,” he says.

With the presence of additive manufacturing, however, all they have to do is keep CAD drawings within their database so that, when somebody orders a spare part, they are able to build and fabricate it within 24 hours without having to keep it in stock for an extended period of time.” Harrysson says this spare part application is especially intriguing because it provides a critical capability for big companies who have in the past rejected additive manufacturing’s role in their processes in favor of mass production.

And it goes further. Take BMW, for example, who recently announced at a conference their desire to 3-D print the containers used to hold their vehicles’ brake fluid. Harrysson, who attended the conference, says that when people in the audience questioned why BMW would attempt to begin its 3-D printing processes with one of the hardest parts inside the car, the spokesperson for the automotive giant said, “We’re already doing it for just about every plastic part in our cars, this is just the last component we haven’t figured out.”

With companies like BMW and John Deere utilizing additive manufacturing, it’s safe to assume that many other medium and large-scale manufacturers are as well. However, Harrysson says that the notion that traditional manufacturing will ultimately be replaced in favor of additive manufacturing is both premature and misguided. “Manufacturers will definitely have more design freedom but at the end of the day, even if you’re printing near net shape components, the need for finishing will still be required,” he says, adding, “it’s really going to more about leveling the playing field amongst manufacturers because they won’t have to be as dependent on labor costs anymore.” He says that while industries like aerospace and medicine are leading the charge in the field, plenty of others are beginning to wake up and understand the benefits as well. “Additive manufacturing is an exciting frontier, and at the ISE we are working hard each day to see just how far we can take it, or rather it can take us.”

About NC State ISE
NC State University Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is among the top ranked programs in the country. The department brings together industry professionals and academic leaders across innovative and cutting-edge curriculum and technology development, including regenerative medicine, health systems, and 3D printing.

About Dr. Ola Harrysson
Ola Harrysson joined the ISE department in January of 2002 and teaches courses related to product development, manufacturing processes, additive manufacturing, and biomodeling. Most of his research involves additive manufacturing, specifically the medical applications. Dr. Harrysson is in charge of the Additive Manufacturing Laboratory (AML) in the ISE department which houses the first Electron Beam Melting machine in the world. AML is currently involved with both aerospace and medical related research as well as providing faculty and students with prototyping services. Dr. Harrysson, along with his colleague Denis Marcellin-Little, have pioneered the area of Transdermal Osseointegrated Prosthetics, a type of prosthetic limb that is directly attached the bone in the stump instead of using an external socket.