John Danko got his Baltimore company's first 3-D printer four years ago, and he said it's given him a front-row seat for a manufacturing revolution.
In an office across the street from the foundry where Danko Arlington's molten metal flows, he prints out the industrial patterns he said he could no longer find skilled workers to do by hand. Employees designing products on computers use the technology to spit out prototypes more quickly.
Some see in this the potential for a change as substantial as the Industrial Revolution — a different way of making things that could kick-start tiny operations, disrupt entire industries and literally transform the landscape.
"You won't have factories in the future," said Danko, president of Danko Arlington, a nearly century-old company that makes components for military, aerospace and commercial customers. "They're going to be more like office buildings."
The printers build items layer by layer — "additive" manufacturing as opposed to subtractive methods like machining — with materials ranging from plastic to metal to glass. Some machines print chocolate. Some print biomaterials like living cells.
The basic technology isn't new. It's three decades old, in fact. But only in recent years — as costs dropped, quality improved and companies began to grasp the possibilities — has it rippled into manufacturing beyond the early adopters.
Management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said in a report this year that the technology has reached a tipping point. It appears "ready to emerge from its niche status," McKinsey concluded, and "could lead to profound changes in the way many things are designed, developed, produced, and supported."
And maybe even how they're moved.
"People spend a lot of money shipping goods around the world," said Tim Gornet, manager of the Rapid Prototyping Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, over the hum of two 3-D printers. "It'd be much cheaper to ship data around the world."
What all this could mean for manufacturing jobs — globally or domestically — is a big question.
Printers can replace machinists and other human specialists in some cases now, and perhaps in many more cases later. But the machines could be a boon to startups by lowering the high cost of entry to get into manufacturing. And they could dilute the labor cost advantage enjoyed by countries such as China.
Bill Davidson is on the optimist side of the jobs debate. He's CEO of the 60-employee UAV Solutions in Jessup, which builds unmanned aerial systems and parts for those systems, and he thinks 3-D printing will mean more U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Nearly everything his company makes now uses 3-D printing in some way, and he credits it for some of the project growth that's added more than 20 jobs to his business in the last two years. He also sees 3-D printing shifting work from areas Maryland hasn't put a priority on for training — like machining — to tech and software fields that are a focus here, which could make recruiting easier.
Davidson expects to see more manufacturers spring up. His five industrial-grade printers are about $150,000 apiece, but he's sure prices will continue to fall. And even the low-cost desktop models, the ones for a few thousand dollars or less, are good enough these days that an enterprising person with a great idea could start prototyping.
"You could see from an entrepreneurial standpoint, a guy just starting up — this could be huge," Davidson said. "He could do it on his own."
The National Association of Manufacturers doesn't track the number of members using 3-D printers. But officials there see more and more firms incorporating it into research and development, or the manufacturing process itself.
Some items are made entirely on printers or rely on the technology for a key part of their manufacture. Invisalign orthodontic appliances. Replacement parts in F-18 fighter jets. Millions of hearing aids.
Mass production of the exact same items remains cheaper with traditional manufacturing methods — for now. And the time-honed methods of machining and injection molding are better in some cases.
But 3-D printing allows for mass customization, like the Invisalign clear "braces" that are different for every mouth. The technology produces complex shapes that older-school manufacturing can't replicate. And it produces less waste.
"3-D printing has been hyped as though it's going to replace traditional manufacturing, and at some point that could be," said Todd Ramsburg, supervisor of the Advanced Mechanical Fabrication Group at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which has used the printers for years. "But I think the sweet spot in the next few years will be a combination of 3-D printing and traditional manufacturing — and really leveraging the advantage of each."
Sarah Boisvert, chief 3-D printing officer with Potomac Photonics in Halethorpe, sees plenty of ground yet to cover before the technology really hits its stride with manufacturers. For a start, she said, the adoption rate still is pretty low — in part, she thinks, because the hype around 3-D printing fuels skepticism.
She's a believer. The technology has allowed Potomac Photonics to make items that couldn't be manufactured any other way, and she overflows with enthusiasm about the possibilities. Not just a different way of making things. A method that allows inventors to make entirely different sorts of things.
"Now you can make things that do stuff you could never do before," she said. "I think that's where the power is."
Jan Baum sees great potential, too, and she wants Maryland to be a major player in this new manufacturing future — which would be a reversal after a generation of losing manufacturers. Baum is executive director of 3D Maryland, a project launched last fall by the Howard County Economic Development Authority and the Regional Manufacturing Institute.
"I really think we have an opportunity," she said. "Maryland has an opportunity to build itself into a 3-D-print and additive-manufacturing hub."
Last month, 3D Maryland launched an innovation and prototyping lab for companies to try out 3-D printing. It's also organized a professional user group so people with experience with the technology — from manufacturing engineers to a cutting-edge surgeon — can connect and learn from one another. More than 250 professionals have come to at least one of the meetings.
The Regional Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group, also is involved in a new additive manufacturing initiative designed to boost 3-D printing in Harford and Cecil counties. Part of that effort is about connecting manufacturers with the fleet of 3-D printers at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
"Edgewood has probably the most outstanding full complement of 3-D printers in Maryland," said Mike Galiazzo, president of the manufacturing institute. "They're top of the line."
Rick Moore works amid them as branch chief of rapid technologies at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. His branch has 14 of the printers — they call them "additive manufacturing machines" to distinguish them from the consumer-grade models now available.
The rapid technologies team, which focuses on chemical-biological protection such as respirators, has worked with 3-D printing since 1989. But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks increased the importance of the rapid product development that the technology does so well.
"If we print out a couple of designs and put them in soldiers' hands … we get feedback directly and make modifications and print it again until we get it right," Moore said.
Under the new agreement with local officials, the team will print items for manufacturers — if machines are available — for a break-even cost to be determined. It's a way for companies to see whether 3-D works for them without first shelling out for a high-end machine.
Other companies are making a business out of 3-D printing services. Gaithersburg-based NextLine Manufacturing, a startup that launched in February with $4.2 million in investor funding, offers additive and traditional manufacturing on contract to other firms.
Randy Altschuler, NextLine's CEO, is a serial entrepreneur who sold his previous two firms — one in back-office services, one in electronics recycling — to public companies.
Contract manufacturing is usually about cheap labor offshore handling orders from a few big customers, said Laurence Zuriff, NextLine's chief financial officer. NextLine wants to handle lots of small orders — and do it from the pricey Washington suburbs.
Leaders there are betting that 3-D printing is the key.
"Until you had the ability to do customized parts, that model couldn't work because you couldn't have the scale to make it profitable," Zuriff said. "We think it's now possible to do. And we think it gives you an added incentive to locate in the United States, because the ability to deliver something quickly is critical."