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The way we make things will never be the same

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Charlotte Weber Charlotte Weber

Charlotte Weber is Director & CEO of the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI). For information on RCBI, log on to its website at

Today we are witnessing what some are calling the "Third Industrial Revolution," and I'm proud to say the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) is in the forefront of that dramatic transformation.

When historians talk about the "Industrial Revolution," they refer to the era in the late 18th century when making things by hand first gave way to producing them with steam- or water-powered machines. In the early 20th century, automotive pioneer Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing again when he devised the moving assembly line, ushering in the era of mass production. Now manufacturing is being revolutionized a third time. The way we make things will never be the same.

This new revolution is the result of an unprecedented technological convergence that's bringing together sophisticated computer software, amazing new materials and innovative processes such as additive manufacturing (AM). Using AM technology, an object can be designed on a computer and then "printed" on a 3D printer.

The 3D printing that's revolutionizing manufacturing has nothing to do with the traditional printing that gives us books, magazines and newspapers. Nor does it have anything to do with 3D movies. It's something entirely different. A digitized design of an item is fed into a 3D printer, which then uses that design to create a solid object by building successive layers of materials. The 3D printer can run unattended and operate virtually anywhere — on a factory floor, in an office or even in your own garage. (With the price of 3D printers falling rapidly, their home use is just around the corner.)

In the beginning, 3D printers were primarily used to produce prototypes of new products, doing so far faster and cheaper than having a prototype machined by hand. But already 3D printers are being used in low-volume production runs, and their potential seems virtually limitless. In the future, 3D printers could be used to produce spare parts for all manner of products, meaning it no longer would be necessary to keep huge inventories of such parts on hand. Instead, you would simply call up a digital file of the part you need and then print it.

At RCBI, we've been using 3D printing since 2009.

Established in 1990, RCBI serves as an innovative catalyst for economic development by providing manufacturers, entrepreneurs and workers access to the 21st century skills and equipment they need to compete in today's global marketplace. Our advanced manufacturing technology centers in Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport and Rocket Center (near Keyser in the state's Eastern Panhandle) offer leased time on state-of-the-market, computer-controlled manufacturing equipment and a wide variety of technical training, as well as workforce development and quality implementation initiatives. Our Bridgeport facility is a national Center of Excellence for composite materials.

Given our long-standing determination to be on the leading edge of manufacturing technology, it was inevitable that we would venture into additive manufacturing. Since we installed our first 3D printer, dozens of clients have used our Design Works labs and our 3D printers in Huntington and Charleston to take their ideas to reality. Using the computers in our design labs, they can start with something as simple as a rough sketch on the back of an envelope and turn it into a three-dimensional computer model. That model can then be fed into a 3D printer to print the desired object.

Now RCBI has taken a hugely important step in the additive manufacturing revolution by joining as a key player in a major federal investment that's establishing the nation's first Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

The purpose of this new program is to accelerate the development, integration, evaluation and exploitation of additive manufacturing technology for commercial manufacturing. With that goal in mind, the program's more than 60 partners will conduct extensive outreach to businesses for the open exchange of additive manufacturing information, design tools, shared manufacturing equipment options, demonstration, process improvement and energy/cost efficiency.

This extraordinary opportunity also involves two West Virginia companies: FMW Composite Systems Inc. of Bridgeport and Touchstone Research Laboratory in Triadelphia.

The new federal initiative is designed to connect industry, universities, community colleges, federal agencies and states in an effort aimed at jumpstarting manufacturing innovation and fostering economic growth — a model very similar to RCBI's mission for the past 20 years. However, in this instance the partners will work to introduce additive manufacturing technologies to as many manufacturers as possible across our state.

Training is another key component of this new program. Utilizing its statewide advanced manufacturing technology centers and skilled instructors, RCBI will leverage its extensive education and training programs to provide degree and certification programs, workforce skills and on-the-job training specific to additive manufacturing.

RCBI also will participate in the development of "cradle to career" additive manufacturing educational programs for STEM students K-12 through college.

This is an enormous opportunity for West Virginia to create new jobs, expand the innovative manufacturing strength of our country and enhance the future of our citizens. It underscores our capability to innovate and the ability of our workforce to prepare for today's more technological workplace.

Today's new and emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing are rewriting the book on manufacturing. And RCBI is playing an essential role in the book's newest chapters.