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Lou Kren Lou Kren
Senior Editor

AM Flexibility, Innovation Apparent in COVID-19 Response

May 14, 2020


In 1939, the U.S. aircraft industry employed less than 47,000 people and produced fewer than 6000 planes. By 1944, according to American Machinist, some 2 million workers had built more than 96,000 planes.

In 1941, the United States manufactured more than 3 million passenger cars; until the end of the war, it made only 139 more, offers PBS.org, as the automotive industry switched to producing tanks, guns and planes in dizzying amounts at dizzying speeds. Consider that Ford Motor Co. took to building B-24 Liberator bombers at its Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, MI—where the average Ford automobile counted about 15,000 parts, a B-24 aircraft totaled 1.5 million. Still, the plant rolled a plane off of the line every 63 min.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, responsible for overall D-Day planning, set foot on the shores of Normandy soon after the invasion commenced in June 1944. He immediately noticed, writes A.J. Baime in an article at History.com, the endless piles of bullet-riddled, destroyed machinery stretching across the beach landscape. The stark imagery produced an epiphany.

“There was no sight in the war that so impressed me with the industrial might of America,” recounted Eisenhower in his memoirs, “as the wreckage on the landing beaches.”

Why the history lesson? Because the retooling is repeating itself worldwide, with additive manufacturing (AM) proving its effectiveness in flexibility and innovation during our global fight against the coronavirus pandemic. No, the current situation in no way compares to the scale and volume of shift enlisted to fight World War II, and AM in no way can deliver such production volumes as detailed above. But, for targeted manufacturing needs, the technology is proving its mettle.

Within months after U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, directed American industry to retool, consumer products gave way to war materiel—an immensely impressive feat. Today, faced with myriad shortages around the world of critical medical PPE, equipment and supplies, AM delivered within hours. This is where AM shines.

For supply of relatively simple parts, the industry and its users—from major companies and government institutions to basement tinkerers—can produce needed designs nearly instantaneously, and immediately pivot to produce what is needed locally. The pages of this 3D Metal Printing issue document some of these successes, and a quick Google search yield myriad more. For more complex needs, AM offers the benefit of rapid prototyping and part/product development to prove out concepts and pave the way for effective solutions, or assist traditional manufacturing processes through quick design and supply of jigs, fixtures and tooling.

In a keynote presentation during April’s DDC 2020, the online Dyndrite Developer Council event, Todd Grimm, founder and president of T.A Grimm & Associates, Inc., detailed AM successes in filling the disrupted supply chain. While the AM industry, he explained, cannot make long-term business cases for supplying many of the products manufactured in response to the pandemic, the flexibility and contracted development and production times, and locality of production inherent in this technology, can be applied successfully in other areas.

Make no mistake, our industry must continue developing the materials, hardware, software and process-control technology needed to succeed as a reliable volume-production source. But, as the pandemic response has shown, when the world needs a helping hand, AM offers the versatility and capability to be just that.

Industry-Related Terms: Additive manufacturing
View Glossary of 3D Metal Printing Terms

Technologies: Applications, Management

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