Every day, the University of Louisville hosts tours of its rapid prototyping center on campus. Schools, businesses, media, and individuals come in to see the additive manufacturing lab at work, and leave amazed at the potential of this "new technology."
Of course, this isn't a new technology — it's more than 30 years old. And U of L has had this center open since 1993. For years, they've worked behind the scenes as a leader in additive manufacturing — specifically with printing metals through laser sintering technology — waiting for people to realize that 3D printing is destined to disrupt many industries.
U of L's work in the field is starting to garner the attention it deserves. The university just announced it has partnered with UL, a global safety science company based in Chicago, to launch the UL Additive Manufacturing Competency Center (AMCC), which will provide end-to-end training for additive manufacturing technical and business professionals. It's set to open in fall 2015.
Add that to the growing list of 3D printing facilities U of L offers, including GE's FirstBuild microfactory, the Speed School of Engineering, and U of L's global advanced manufacturing campus, the Institute for Product Realization (IPR), and Louisville is becoming quite the 3D printing hub.
"Creating this ecosystem around these types of technologies, getting more people involved, the faster and quicker it grows," said Tim Gornet, leader of the Rapid Prototyping Center at U of L. "It's not linear. By continuing things like this, it's allowing it to grow faster and solidify our leadership."
The UL partnership was a good fit, Gornet added, because of the company's certification process and its ability to scale. Running machines, he said, is one thing. But creating a product is another. Now that the AMCC can work with FirstBuild, the IPR, and the engineering school, the university can truly become an ecosystem for advanced manufacturing.
The AMCC will have a three-tier course structure, according to Simin Zhou, VP of digital manufacturing technologies at UL. They developed it with the help from the team at U of L. The company is staffing a team of instructors based in Louisville, and some of the courses will use the rapid prototyping center at U of L.
The first tier is completely online and only takes a few hours. It offers basic information about additive manufacturing and the future of the technology in manufacturing and business. The second tier, a two-week curriculum, is about design quality and safety and material selection, and is available partially online. Zhou said UL has 15 case studies for participants to study to better understand the business and economics of 3D printing across various industries.
The curriculum provides end-to-end hands on experience, she added, and covers design, setup, structural support, machine experience, and post-processing.
The third tier, a five-day training program, is about validation of the technology and its use in various industries. In the future, Zhou said UL plans to add additional curriculum that offers application-specific courses like aviation and medical, so that people can get certified in specific production.
"It's a lot more than just running a machine," Gornet said. It's about certifying materials, processes, machines, and parts. It's about safety and quality control, because they are dealing with a completely new manufacturing paradigm.
"[To go from] what it is today to full fledged manufacturing — that will require certifications," he added.
The courses will be updated every six to 12 months, and UL is planning to offer the course to 100 professionals in the first year. The goal is to train 900 professionals by 2018.
That's aggressive, Zhou said, but they've been working for a couple of years with U of L, so they've done most of the legwork already. And, Gornet agreed, the biggest issue is the lead time to obtain equipment. They've already targeted professionals and plan to start a pilot program in September or October.
All of this is still relatively new, so one of the other fundamental challenges is getting a trained workforce for it.
"It absolutely makes sense and we believe it's over time going to be a critical path for many companies," Zhou said. "It is early and if we scale this right...that's why our company is spending so much time and effort. We believe workforce training is one pillar."
Gary Graf has been with U of L's Rapid Prototyping Center since the beginning, and has seen it grow exponentially in the last couple of years. He works on the day-to-day operations in the center, and said this attention the university is getting now is exciting. It verifies how good the technology is and where they can apply it, and UL is at the forefront of workforce training. Many people are interested, but there are very few that understand how to print in both metal and plastics, he added, and the team at the center often sees companies "forcing 3D printing and it doesn't fit their application."
The training is not only about machine operators, but also engineers, people just starting to adopt the technology, and people who just want to become more educated. Before they bring the giant laser sintering machines in house, they need to make sure it's good for their engineers and operators. It causes a mindshift in how to design parts, also, because there are no longer the limitations of traditional manufacturing — so at the core, it's all about taking advantage of it in the right way.
"There's a lot of innovation and development in creating infrastructure necessary to offer [this] in a completely different environment, bridging digital and physical worlds for the next generation," Zhou said. "It motivates me and excites me in the work we're doing. [What we're] putting in place today, we'll see five, 10, 20 years from now as what a lot of the big transformations in the product world are going to lay on."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.