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The Trade War with China Could Accelerate 3-D Printing in the U.S..

Ashish Choudhary Ashish Choudhary

Vice President Pence just made it all but official: The United States is in a cold war with China. Fed up with Beijing’s industrial espionage, market manipulation, and cyber attacks on the West, coupled with its bullying of neighbors and repression at home, the Trump administration announced a series of strong steps to fight back..

Since the Chinese think their time on the global stage has come, they aren’t likely to back down anytime soon. That spells trouble for American manufacturers with global supply chains. Undoubtedly, it will accelerate the reshoring of items now sourced in China. As companies rethink their supply chains, they ought to seriously consider embracing a new manufacturing technology that’s now ready for prime time: 3-D printing.

No longer relegated to trinkets and prototyping, 3-D printing, which is also called additive manufacturing, is now moving into mass production. Printer makers have solved a variety of quality, cost, and speed problems to the point where printers can compete with conventional manufacturers at volumes of tens or even hundreds of thousands of units.

That’s true even when the individual 3-D printer factory makes only a few hundreds of units, because it won’t depend as much on economies of scale.  Parts made in small American factories will cost nearly the same as those made in giant Asian plants — especially since these highly automated printers require less labor than conventional processes. So 3-D printing is tailor-made for reshoring — bringing production back home to be closer to customers. Not only does it lessen supply chain risks, but it weakens China’s advantages in manufacturing.

The U.S. military has already been working on additive as a quicker way to supply repair parts to remote locations and to make ultra-light, high-performance fighter jets. More broadly, the Obama administration set up the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Center (“America Makes”), a technology support program in Youngstown, Ohio. But the Trump administration is looking to ramp up those efforts with tax breaks and direct subsidies to companies that bring military supply chains home.

Those supports will be crucial to getting manufacturers on board with the new technology. It will take time and effort: Additive manufacturing require a steep learning curve for engineers used to working on conventional assembly lines, and each part must be tested extensively to make sure it holds up under wartime conditions.

  • Additive manufacturing just passed a major test when GE certified parts for the new GEnx engines in Boeing 747s.  If additive can stand up to the rigors of jet propulsion, then it can handle most any military demand.