March 11, 2019

CT stakes high ground in additive-manufacturing arms race

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
David Hill, director of additive manufacturing operations at ATI New Britain, formerly Addaero Manufacturing, inspects a part developed using 3D-printing technology. Pittsburgh's Allegheny Technologies acquired Addaero last year as part of the U.S. manufacturing industry's growing embrace of additive technology.
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
David Hill, director of additive manufacturing operations at ATI Hartford, formerly Addaero Manufacturing, showcases a part developed using 3D-printing technology.
Photo | HBJ File
Former Addaero co-owners David Hill (left) and Richard Merlino say additive opened opportunities to them.
Doug Folsom, CEO, Whitcraft Group

Technology mankind has used for generations to cast and shape metal parts is giving way to "additive'' processes, in which digital-laser machinery applies layer upon layer of hot material to create complex parts to fine tolerances.

Some three decades after it was first introduced, additive manufacturing is finally taking hold, manufacturers and others say, but not just among tinkerers, test sites or smaller firms using it to create parts prototypes.

Large Connecticut and U.S. original equipment makers like Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, Stanley Black & Decker and others are growing more comfortable with the technology's product quality and operating efficiencies, leading them to acquire or partner with additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — companies and suppliers.

That's put Connecticut's innovative army of small, independent machine shops, some of which have led the global chase toward additive replacing production of traditional metallic and polymer parts using age-old but wasteful milling and lathing processes, in the mergers-and-acquisition crosshairs.

Last summer, for example, high-performance and specialty materials maker Allegheny Technologies Inc. (ATI) quietly paid an undisclosed sum for New Britain additive-manufacturing shop Addaero Manufacturing, launched by a pair of former Pratt engineers. The deal gives the $4 billion annual-revenue Pittsburgh, Pa., company a foothold in technology that one top ATI officer says is the future of producing quieter but more powerful, full-efficient passenger jet engines.

In February, Eastford aeroparts maker Whitcraft Group purchased a tiny, but emerging New England developer of additive-manufacturing technology, Form 3D Solutions, of Dover, N.H.

Boston-based GE has aggressively expanded its additive footprint, too, including buying stakes in several 3D printers and establishing its own additive manufacturing division with a global footprint. Among its acquisitions was Shelton-based DiSanto Technology Inc., which it acquired in 2017 through its purchase of Sweden's Arcam EBM. DiSanto, which uses additive manufacturing to produce medical-device components, has since been sold again to Switzerland's global high-tech industrial company Oerlikon, which has an additive-manufacturing partnership with GE.

Meantime, a small batch of 3D printing startups that came to Hartford last fall to participate in the Stanley+TechStars Additive Manufacturing Accelerator say they are staying in the Capital City, to focus on refining their technology.

Martin Guay, Stanley's vice president of business development and a Stanley+TechStars mentor, said that while many of the earliest accelerator participants' technologies are still too undeveloped, it isn't unreasonable to expect that they will mature enough to be attractive acquisition targets.

Stanley, which recently seeded one accelerator participant — MetalMaker 3D — with a $500,000 investment, could be a suitor.

"It's a game-changing technology,'' said Jeff Crandall, senior research and applications engineer at East Hartford's Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT), an early proctor in the development and application of additive in this state.

Additive uses high-temperature lasers to melt and bond, layer by layer, beads of plastic polymers or metals to shape a form or part.

Connecticut has been a development hotbed for the technology because of its sizable advanced-manufacturing footprint.

There are also several training sites like CCAT, Central Connecticut State University and Tunxis Community and Asnuntuck Community colleges, where additive and other cutting-edge production technologies are refined and test-driven for use in real-world manufacturing applications.

Machine shops are increasingly drawn to the technology because it allows for rapid prototyping that reduces time to market and the development of more customizable or small-batch parts. It can also help reduce waste and lead to better product performance, according to research firm CB Insights.

Whitcraft Group CEO Doug Folsom, a 27-year manufacturing veteran who spent time at GE Aviation, says additive is just the tip of the iceberg of future benefits for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Pratt, GE and their commercial customers worldwide.

"Additive is an innovation in manufacturing," Folsom said, "that we believe is going to be the future of aerospace."

Whitcraft, which got new equity ownership in 2017, opted to deepen its relationship with Form 3D by buying the company.

"We see the ability to additively manufacture aerospace components as a competitive advantage going forward for the Whitcraft Group businesses,'' Folsom said. "We wanted this to be part of our family to help each of our businesses grow with this new technology. You just do not get the same kind of relationship with a supplier or partner."

Challenges to overcome

While 3D printing is becoming more mainstream, there are still challenges to its widespread acceptance.

Veteran Connecticut manufacturing executive Paul Murphy cautions that for every machine-shop owner who relishes the advantages that additive offers, there are skeptics who are in no real hurry to embrace the latest production technology.

Additive-manufacturing equipment is costly. Prices run from as low as $5,000 for small, tabletop laser 3D printers to upwards of $500,000 or more for larger additive machines capable of transforming metal powders into full-scale, working parts.

That makes affordability an issue, especially for smaller shops.

"The problem is the technology keeps evolving,'' said Murphy, executive director of Aerospace Components Manufacturers (ACM), a Hartford-based, Connecticut-Western Massachusetts coalition of aeroparts makers-suppliers

"Something you buy today could be obsolete in five years," he said.

One way companies are gaining or deepening footholds in the 3D-printing space is through acquisitions. There's been significant additive-manufacturing deal volume in recent years involving companies of all sizes.

Sector tracker 3D Printing Industry lists 18 deals involving additive-manufacturing companies going back to only last July.

Training the next generation of additive-manufacturing workers, too, is dictated largely by the cost and availability of the latest equipment.

Mechanical engineer Chris Foster, who teaches additive as part of the advanced-manufacturing programs at Tunxis Community College in Farmington and Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, says those awed by the technology don't appreciate that even additive-made parts require some level of finishing work to meet customers' standards.

"People see the glamor of taking the [finished] part out [of the additive machine]. But it's not,'' Foster said.

No immediate estimate exists as to the number of skilled workers eventually needed in additive manufacturing. However, Foster says a general rule is that for every two production machines, at least one skilled worker is needed to run them.

Another damper on full-scale embrace of additive, Murphy and other observers say, is that some OEMs still routinely insist on having most parts made using traditional injection molding, milling and lathing, not fully convinced about the quality of additive-made parts.

But that's changing, Folsom says.

Pratt & Whitney's geared turbofan engine, he said, as well as propulsion systems from GE and other aero-engine builders, will likely be the last to be produced using traditional technology. Pratt, GE, Sikorsky, British jet-engine builder Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, are among Whitcraft's major OEM customers.

Both Pratt and GE, Folsom said, "are very focused on engine designs'' that "add metal to create parts, rather than subtracting … .''

Pratt spokesman John Thomas, in a statement, said, "Additive technologies are the future, and those technologies are certainly influencing future engine designs and helping us bring products to market faster, while allowing Pratt & Whitney to continue our industry-leading engine development."

America's The Boeing Co., Europe's Airbus, and other jet airframe builders in Brazil, Germany, Japan and Russia are pushing development of smaller, lightweight single-aisle jetliners that will rely on just two fuel-efficient engines, Folsom said. Those engines, too, will benefit from additive-made parts.

With "unprecedented engine demand'' from Pratt and GE, Folsom said Whitcraft projects its 2019 revenue to profitably climb by 10 percent for the second year in a row.

From supplier to producer

According to John D. Sims, ATI's executive vice president of high performance materials and components, ATI sought to transition from being a supplier of metal powders used in additive manufacturing to actually producing complex components from the raw materials.

Already a customer, ATI seized on acquiring Addaero Manufacturing (now ATI New Britain) as a quick entry into the technology, Sims said. To Addaero's additive expertise ATI brings scale, engineering expertise and financial backing.

"I would say you're going to see in 10 years the adoption of additive technology in different places,'' Sims said.

Engineer Richard Merlino, Addaero's co-founder, said additive technology "is in a transitional period, where people are getting comfortable with the results.''

Moreover, as ATI/Addaero and other additive-production vendors become more adept with the technology, they benefit from higher productivity and efficiency from additive equipment that can cost $1 million or more.

"That's enabling a bigger pie,'' Merlino said.

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