Much has been said in political circles about the paucity of investment of resources, research and, yes, dollars toward the development of technologies to enable more innovative production of high-precision components. But the reports I’m hearing from a variety of sources in the field suggest something rather encouraging—that there is, indeed, quite a bit of meaningful collaboration taking place between the public and private sector—industry, academia and government—with respect to advancing materials science research and application. 

Exhibit A: A recent conversation I had with Dr. Ravi Shankar, director of process technologies and coatings at Chromalloy, a prominent aerospace parts manufacturer and supplier of technologically advanced repairs, coatings, and FAA-approved re-engineered parts for turbine airfoils and critical engine components for commercial airlines, defence, industrial turbine engines, and aero-derivative applications, among others. Part of Dr. Shankar’s responsibilities with the company includes scouting out opportunities for joint ventures and strategic partnerships both within and outside the traditional supply chain.   
 
One such opportunity surfaced in 2011, when Chromalloy signed on as an “organizing industry member” with the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM), a public/private collaboration of member companies and Virginia’s premier research universities: the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. CCAM is primarily tasked with development of new manufacturing technologies and transference of processes from the research lab into the production environment. The center’s organizing industry members, led by titans such as Rolls-Royce—the venerable turbine engine manufacturer—are from diverse industries. Other prominent partners include Canon Virginia, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Siemens and Sandvik.
 
Earlier this year, CCAM unveiled its new facility on 20 acres adjacent to the Rolls-Royce jet engine manufacturing facilities in Virginia. Rolls-Royce donated land for the 60,000 square foot CCAM facility, which houses computational and large-scale production labs as well as open production space for heavy equipment and surface coating processes. Dr. Shankar recently told Metal Powder Report that Chromalloy is conducting both proprietary research as well as some generic research with the partners of CCAM. While the advancement of surface engineering is the focal point of this research and development, innovation in precision parts manufacturing is also high on the list. (Chromalloy added high-tech manufacturing to its repertoire about 10 years ago.)
 
Collaborative efforts are not relegated to North America. Exhibit B: Newly announced plans for the UK Technology Strategy Board, Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to invest up to £7 million in research and development projects in the field of additive manufacturing.1 In a press release, the organisations mentioned the slow adoption of AM, due to “high cost, inconsistent material properties, lack of applicable industry standards, unexpected pre-and post-processing requirements and the failure to exploit the new design freedoms offered.” The programme, (or “competition,” as it has been termed) aims to overcome some of the perceived shortcomings of additive manufacturing.
 
By investing in these target areas, the collaborators aim to accelerate the creation of exciting new design, production and supply chain competences for UK businesses, the press release noted.
To that end, all proposals must be collaborative and business-led, involving at least one other non-academic partner. Between £50k and £750k is expected to be invested in each project, although projects outside this range will be considered. The organisations are primarily looking to fund innovation projects in the category of industrial research, attracting 50% public funding (60% for SMEs). So far the partners have also allocated up to £500k for industrial research projects focused on applications in space, which they see as having strong potential for adoption of this technology to produce highly efficient, lightweight component designs for space vehicles and equipment.
 
The vast sums of money supporting emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing is proof positive that researchers might be onto something. According to manufacturing industry experts such as Michelle Nash-Hoff, president of ElectroFab Sales, millions of dollars of government-funded research in additive manufacturing has led to breakthroughs and cost reduction in the utilization of this technology. “Large, complex geometry parts that had to be made by casting and forging with expensive tooling are now being made by laser sintering of metals such as tool steel, stainless steel, cobalt chrome-moly, and other steel alloys,” she explained. While selective laser sintering (SLS) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) began as a way to build parts early in the design cycle, Nash-Hoff says it is now being used to manufacture end-use parts. “Depending on the material, up to 100% density can be achieved with material properties comparable to those found with traditional manufacturing methods.”
 
Advancements such as these—as well as those just on the horizon—make a strong case for continued research, development, and collaboration. And, yes, of course, ongoing funding.
 
 
 REFERENCES
 
  1.  Additive manufacturing widely described as the process of producing parts by successive melting of layers of material rather than removing material, as is the case with conventional machining. Each layer is melted to the exact geometry defined by a 3D CAD model. Additive manufacturing allows for building parts with very complex geometries without any sort of tools or fixtures, and without producing any waste material.