Northeast Ohio: An expansive frontier for additive manufacturing
September 01, 2017
Additive manufacturing is still a relatively new technology.
Initially developed in the 1980s, improvements in materials and accessibility have gradually brought additive manufacturing – commonly referred to as 3D printing – toward the mainstream.
Though it still has quite a way to go to catch up with traditional manufacturing methods, companies throughout Northeast Ohio and the country are finding new ways to utilize additive manufacturing and its associated skills in their businesses.
Greater Cleveland and the broader Northeast Ohio region are in a unique position to capitalize on additive manufacturing. Northeast Ohio has been a hub of manufacturing activity for over a century, and even as the region has undergone a transition to a post-industrial economy over the past 50-plus years, the manufacturing sector has persevered, evolving to survive and thrive in a technologically advanced world.
It’s because of the manufacturing industry’s adaptability that additive manufacturing has been able to begin growing roots in the area. As of 2016, an estimated 350 area manufacturing businesses are either actively using, or exploring the possibility of using, additive manufacturing technologies.
“Additive manufacturing is a way to strengthen what we already have in this region,” said Alethea Ganaway, program manager for additive manufacturing at Cuyahoga Community College. “Our location, and the existing core of manufacturing businesses, make additive manufacturing something that local businesses are interested in exploring further.”
It means additive manufacturing is becoming a useful value-add skill set for college students in STEM fields. While there are only an estimated 500 jobs in the 18-county Northeast Ohio region that count additive manufacturing as a core function, there still are up to 20,000 area jobs that utilize additive manufacturing skills in some capacity.
Additive manufacturing skills have found a place in new-product research and development, engineering and drafting, among others. Virtually any space that utilizes rapid prototyping can benefit from additive manufacturing.
The Cleveland area’s robust presence in the medical field represents an area of particularly high potential for additive manufacturing. The technology is still evolving as it pertains to the medical space, but doctors are already using additive manufacturing to model bones and organs in advance of some surgeries.
“Eventually, other medical uses could become more widespread,” Ganaway said. “The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. is utilizing 3D printing technology to make customized prosthetic limbs for soldiers and veterans. Back here in Cleveland, our capstone class at Tri-C worked with the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center to engineer attachments for limbs using additive manufacturing techniques, in a way that allows use by those who don’t have full motion of their limbs.
“For example, a 3D printed tool attachment that allows someone with a disability to perform yardwork with a long-handled tool like a hoe or a rake. I think as the technology around additive manufacturing continues to evolve, we’ll see more applications like that.”
Right now, production cost and versatility of materials remain the biggest hurdles to the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing techniques, both locally and nationwide. But recent technological advancements have begun to close that gap as well. Plastics and polymers continue to account for nearly the entirety of materials used in additive manufacturing; however, we are venturing closer to a day when metals, and perhaps even organic materials, can be utilized in additive manufacturing processes.
As this field continues to develop and evolve, Tri-C is among the area educational institutions continually investing in the equipment and facilities necessary to provide up-to-date additive manufacturing training, benefiting both workers and companies throughout Northeast Ohio.
Click here for information on Tri-C’s 3D Digital Design and Manufacturing Technology program.