The Times West Virginian


July 6, 2014

3-D printing continuing to revolutionize manufacturing

FAIRMONT — As 3-D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing, the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing continues to stay at the forefront of this technology.

RCBI has three Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers, located in Bridgeport, Charleston and Huntington. Part of what each of these centers does is additive manufacturing with 3-D technology, termed 3-D printing for short.

Mike Friel, public information specialist, said RCBI has had this technology since about 1993, which was pretty early in the 3-D printing process. At that time, some people saw 3-D printing, like other new developments, as more of a novelty than a method of revolutionizing manufacturing.

“That thinking has changed and is continuing to evolve, too,” he said.

3-D printing has only existed since the late 1980s, but most experts say that the technology is still in its infancy. As 3-D printing evolves, it has the chance to change the way businesses manufacture and the way that individuals live and work, Friel said.

With the traditional manufacturing process, creating a piece from metal involves boring or cutting away the block of metal using various machines, which is commonly known as subtractive manufacturing, he said. Fifty percent of the metal might be cut away and considered waste, or possibly could be recycled.

But 3-D printing, on the other hand, builds the piece by adding very fine layers a bit at a time. Because only what is needed to create the product or part is added, there is little to no waste as a result, Friel said.

RCBI has three basic types of 3-D printers.

He explained that one uses a spool of plastic to build the item up layer by layer. Depending on the design, the process may require the creation of thin support material to hold something in place as it dries or cures. Then, as the product is being finished, the support materials can be broken away or in some instances dissolved in a solution.

Another type of 3-D printer at RCBI has an arm that pushes layer upon layer of plastic powder — ground up as fine as sand or flour — onto a bed, and the machine then applies a bonding agent for each layer and use dyes to add color. The powder that remains after printing can be removed, Friel said.

This plastic powder machine doesn’t require support material because the bed provides support as the item is printed, he said. Also, pieces can be printed on top of one another without sticking together. Each item is treated with a hardening agent to increase the durability, and RCBI can build plastic parts that are strong enough to bend metal.

Friel said RCBI’s third kind of printer uses metal powder. It works similarly to the plastic powder printer in the way that an an arm deposits a layer of metal powder onto a build platform. Then this metal printer uses a high-powered laser that melts the powder and forms the item, building it layer by layer.

Which machines manufacturers use depends on the function of the particular part and how strong and lightweight they want it to be, he said.

From a computer file, RCBI can replicate or generate a part exactly the way a client wants it. When something is built, a 3-D image can be created in a computer design program and then sent to the 3-D printer, Friel said.

He said RCBI can also do reverse engineering, in which it takes a 3-D object and uses computer equipment to produce the 3-D image that is fed directly to the printer. Reverse engineering is often used by companies that have old equipment and want to produce a part that may no longer be manufactured.

3-D printing isn’t particularly a fast process, which is why it’s not being used at this time for mass production. However, it has numerous advantages over traditional manufacturing processes, including saving manufacturers time and money, Friel said.

In the traditional manufacturing process, once an item is designed and a prototype is created, any changes that are needed can be very time-consuming and costly. However, with 3-D printing, low-cost prototypes are being printed with much cheaper materials, and changes can be made very quickly on the computer, he said.

Friel said 3-D printing has also really sped up the manufacturing process, as the steps from idea stage to market and commercialization for a product can be reduced to several months or a few days in many cases, or even a few hours in some instances.

This technology reduces the need for assembly of complex parts, because the parts can be printed already assembled, he said. In addition, 3-D printers can create parts that have movable elements, like an adjustable wrench, without the different parts having to be manufactured and assembled individually.

“It really gives unprecedented design freedom,” Friel said. “This really opens the manufacturing process up to designs that previously were unthinkable. Parts can be produced in demand, reducing the need to have a large stockpile or inventory, which further can reduce the cost of warehousing and transportation costs.”

The automotive industry has been using 3-D printing for quite some time, but the applications are much more widespread than that.

This technology can be used to make art, to build implants in the medical field or crowns in the dental field, to produce parts that are lightweight and strong for the aerospace industry, and to develop detailed design models in architecture. People are also using 3-D printing to create jewelry and fashion, and food is a new area for 3-D printing, like with the production of intricate chocolates, Friel said.

In addition, there has been success in using 3-D printing in the biomedical field to build human tissue and organs that could be used for transplants. Plus, experimentation is being done with very large 3-D printers to produce houses, and maybe one day this technology could be used to print a skyscraper.

“Who knows what the future holds?” he said. “3-D printing is still in its infancy, and there are so many endless possibilities.”

3-D printers are becoming more common, and some companies have begun purchasing their own systems as the prices have done down. 3-D printers for home use have dropped to about $1,400. However, most businesses can’t afford to buy the 3-D printers that are required to fit their needs. For example, RCBI’s new metal 3-D printer cost about $750,000.

“We remain at the forefront of the innovation,” Friel said. “We’re able to provide entrepreneurs and businesses with access to the latest technology, including 3-D printing. This is often technology that they wouldn’t be able to print on their own. We provide a clearing house where we have people with the expertise and we provide this latest equipment.”

He said RCBI helps businesses large and small to design and produce products, create prototypes and copy items. The institute has worked with NASA, Toyota Manufacturing, West Virginia University, Marshall University, Concord University and many other schools and entities.

Every year, RCBI hosts summer camps that allow middle school and high school students to learn about 3-D printing and make something using this technology. One is coming up from July 21 to 25 at the Bridgeport location, and RCBI is still looking for more campers to join.

Also, recently through a grant from NASA, RCBI held a day-long, space-themed workshop in Huntington for teachers to find out how to incorporate 3-D printing into the classroom setting to reinforce the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum.

The participating teachers had the opportunity to learn about the software side, too, and design something space-related during a friendly competition. The winners will be displayed at the NASA Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Facility in Fairmont.

“You’re going to continue to hear a lot more about this in the coming years because it’s truly changing the way that we manufacture in this country and around the world, and we hope to stay at the forefront of that,” Friel said of RCBI and the future of 3-D printing.

Email Jessica Borders at or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.

Text Only
  • ‘L-gov’ program of West Virginia Treasurer’s Office providing many benefits

    The “L-gov” program of the West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office is providing many benefits to governmental entities across the state, including the City of Fairmont.
    L-gov, which is an abbreviation for local government, helps cities, towns, school boards, public service districts and other entities process their bills in a streamlined, efficient way.

    July 27, 2014

  • Cardinal Tax Services-JB.jpg Helping people focus of Cardinal Tax Services

    At Cardinal Tax Services LLC, Wendy Cutlip is doing what she enjoys — helping people.
    Cutlip, owner and Registered Tax Return Preparer, opened her new business in White Hall at the beginning of June. It is located in the Mountain Gate Business Park, which is along Route 250 South just past Fabric and Foam and next to the Sunoco.

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 22, 2014

  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 22, 2014

  • Morgantown’s housing expenses exceed national average

    The housing prices in Morgantown are driving the city’s cost of living above the national average, a new survey reports.
    John Deskins, director of the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics’ Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER), explained that the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) orchestrates data collection in 288 cities across the country.

    July 20, 2014

  • JA Used Furniture-JB.jpg J.A. Used Furniture has valuable variety

    J.A. Used Furniture in Fairmont carries items that people need — all at low prices.
    Owner Ron Dray officially opened the doors of his new business, located at 10 Locust Ave., toward the end of December. He explained that the “J.A.” initials in the store’s name stand for the names of his two granddaughters, Jordan and Adriauna.

    July 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Backbone Security, T&T Pump Co. among 37 state companies recognized

    Two Marion County companies were recently celebrated for their continued successes in exporting.
    Backbone Security and T&T Pump Co., both in Fairmont, were among the 37 West Virginia companies that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Cabinet Secretary Keith Burdette, the West Virginia Development Office and the West Virginia Export Council recently acknowledged for expanding their business to new parts of the world. An awards presentation was held in Charleston on June 24.

    July 13, 2014

  • All Things Herbal-JB.jpg All Things Herbal health and wellness shop

    All Things Herbal Local Market is a one-stop, health and wellness shop.
    Owner Christa Blais officially opened her new business in downtown Fairmont at 327 Adams St., across from Veterans’ Square, on June 6 during Main Street Fairmont’s First Friday event.

    July 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • 3-D printing continuing to revolutionize manufacturing

    As 3-D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing, the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing continues to stay at the forefront of this technology.
    RCBI has three Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers, located in Bridgeport, Charleston and Huntington.

    July 6, 2014

  • Blackheart International -JB.jpg Blackheart International bringing high-quality services

    Blackheart International, a firearms manufacturer and provider of logistics and training solutions, is bringing high-quality services to the local community.
    At the beginning of April, the company moved from Philippi, where it had been located since 2005, to its new home in Fairmont.

    July 6, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
NDN Business
House Ads