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Youngstown, Ohio: Mecca of 3D Printing? Not Yet

When President Obama touted a Youngstown, Ohio-based institute as a "state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering 3D printing," he spoke too soon. Here's the true story.
A 3-D printer at work.

Looming above downtown Youngstown, Ohio, the painted sign on the brick wall speaks of a hopeful long-ago time--the early 20th century--when money flowed like water in what was once one of America’s greatest steel towns. “REICHART,” the fading white print reads, celebrating a proud retailer. "Youngstown’s greater store for women. Everything ready to wear. Liberal credit."

In the 70s, as the U.S. steel industry was in its last sputtering death throes, the old Reichart building had a more ignominious purpose. It was a warehouse for Furnitureland, a low-end purveyor of plaid couches and EZ Boys. For three decades after that, it was vacant, as were many of the abandoned houses in the poverty-stricken streets nearby.

Then last August the old Reichart building welcomed a new enterprise so promising that it got a shout-out from President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union speech. "Last year," the president said, "we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

The Pinocchio Scale

The president's language--"lab," "new workers"--conjured to mind images of space-age assembly-line laborers, imbued with the blue-collar work ethic of their steel milling forebears, invoking 21st century high-tech wizardry to create sleek, novel products. Unfortunately, it seems that the president exaggerated a bit, or maybe failed to do his homework. No real magic is happening in the old Reichart building yet, even though the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) is a decidedly hopeful addition to the beleaguered and beloved Midwestern city celebrated in Inc.'s 2010 story, "Semper Youngstown."

Currently, NAMII has just two staffers. It is a fledgling business incubator aimed at kickstarting the nascent additive manufacturing (AM) industry, which relies on quarter-million-dollar 3D "printers" that can deposit thin layers of metals, plastics, ceramics and the like as digitally directed. The additive industry could in time afford a wide array of manufacturers an economical way to produce small batches of customized goods--replacement knees, for instance, or fighter jet parts. For now, though, the industry and the program is still largely a gamble--and one that has the Department of Defense crossing its fingers. The DOD has kicked in the lion’s share of the $30 million that NAMII, a nonprofit, has received in government funding. Private entities--among them, Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor, and 3D Systems Corporation, a giant in the 3D printing industry--have contributed an additional undisclosed amount, inducing the two guys on NAMII's payroll, directors Ralph Resnick and Ed Morris, to get busy.  

A Bit of Smoke, A Few Mirrors

When I phoned Resnick and Morris last week, they were both traveling, in the reasonable hope of drumming up enthusiasm for NAMII amid the myriad engineering geeks who've embraced AM at companies like General Electric and research outfits like the Ohio Aerospace Institute. The Institute’s 12,000-square-foot office was empty, awaiting entrepreneurs willing to pay at least $15,000 per annum for use of the 10 state-of-the-art 3D printers in NAMII’s charismatic brick-walled laboratory. I spoke to Scott Deutsch, NAMII’s part-time communication specialist, who was working remotely as he endeavored to backpedal from the presidential fib. "While it's great to get all this attention," Deutsch said gamely, "we need to be truthful: We're in the very early stages of this. There's a lot of work to be done. We need to know what ceramics and plastics can do in an AM environment. We need to figure out the industrial processes, and we need to know what happens when you put AM products in a jet airplane or helicopter or a tank."

Deutsch’s full-time gig is with the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining, a Blairsville, Pennsylvania non-profit, which secured federal funding for NAMII by beating out several other applicants in a nationwide contest juried by the Air Force Research Laboratory. His group chose to locate NAMII in Youngstown because, he told me, "It's right in the middle of the tech belt running between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and it has excellent infrastructure for high-tech."

"While it's great to get all this attention," Deutsch said gamely, "we need to be truthful: We're in the very early stages of this."

The Youngstown Business Incubator, the focus of Inc.'s 2010 Youngstown story, has launched myriad success stories--among them, Turning Technologies, the developer of audience feedback hardware and software that placed on the Inc. 5000 list for five consecutive years between 2007 and 2011--and it has in the process helped turn a hopeless Rust Belt backwater into a hipster Mecca, a sort of Brooklyn of the heartland. Another company, V&M Star, just completed a $1.1 million renovation of its plant where it will produce seamless steel pipes for use in the natural gas production industry. Aside from that, most of the successes are in high tech. Via680, whose software product, Ving, enables faster, simpler transmission of spreadsheets and movie and photo attachments.

Pilot Program in a Nascent Industry

NAMII's first gesture, last November, was to offer award money to entrepreneurs and researchers who could help it to develop a baseline understanding of AM processes. Deutsch explains, "A company might win funding if it said, ‘We're making parts using a particular type of stainless steel but we're seeing a lot of variation from part to part. Now let’s figure out what’s happening to materials in the printing process--and let’s ask, 'How can we regularize the process?' They won’t be doing any mass production, but they will be perfecting the procedures of AM."

NAMII has not yet decided how many applicants will share the award money, or even how much it will give out. What’s clear is that soon, probably this spring, the old Reichart building will start thrumming as NAMII endeavors to turn Obama’s dream into reality. "Entrepreneurs will come here and share ideas," Deutsch said. "They’ll use our printers and our lab and they’ll have meetings up in open loft on the third floor. We’re going to put Youngstown on the industrial map again."

Deutsch paused for a moment, and in the awkward silence he seemed to check his exuberance. "But that will be a long time coming," he added finally. "We’ve got a long way to go."

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