Could Hephaestus Compete in Today’s Market?
When the first integrated circuit was produced on a silicon chip, nobody particularly thought about how it would affect the production and quality of a forged metal part. And yet, in the last several decades, technology transfer has worked its way into the manufacturing lexicon and, more importantly, into actual practice. As a consequence, the forging industry has certainly been the beneficiary of numerous successful transfers of technology.
Every so often, though, some powerful technology or group of technologies comes along that has the potential to change the entire manufacturing landscape. The trend toward miniaturization, for example, was brought about largely by the advancement of space exploration programs that started in the 1950s and, literally and figuratively, took off in the 1960s and 1970s.
Miniaturization resulted in (among many other things) ever-increasing numbers of integrated circuits on ever-decreasing chip sizes. Soon, a computer sitting on somebody’s lap was more powerful than the room-filling Eniacs and Univacs of old – by orders of magnitude. The application of advanced technology products to basic industries such as ours has yielded profound results in product design, production, quality and cost. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that even the shop of Hephaestus himself – the mythological god of fire and forge – could not be competitive today without some advanced technology tools.
In rather roundabout fashion this brings me back to the point about additive manufacturing (AM) with which I ended my previous column – that AM is a technology that is here now. How AM will fully integrate into the manufacturing sector remains to be seen, but within the last decade the term once applied to this technology – rapid prototyping – has already become a bit of an anachronism. Though prototypical parts may still be made using AM techniques, the technology has proceeded much farther down the road toward (short) production runs and customized products.
In response to the enormous promise AM offers to the U.S. manufacturing sector, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) was formed in August 2012. Headquartered in Youngstown, Ohio, NAMII is a public-private partnership with member organizations from industry, academia, government and workforce development resources. The organization is the pilot institute under the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation infrastructure. Driven by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, NAMII serves as a nationally recognized AM center of innovation excellence.
Time will tell how AM will affect the metal forging industry. There is delicious irony here, however, insofar as the concept of interchangeable parts once heralded the onset of the industrial revolution. Now, the use of AM to engender the antithesis of interchangeability – customization – has the potential to yield similarly revolutionary results.
Dean M. Peters, Editor