Len Boselovic’s Heard off the Street: Sea change coming with dawn of 3-D

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Two new reports outline a vision of manufacturing that could give a number of people the heebie-jeebies.

An aluminum-industry commissioned report from Ducker Worldwide predicts that the average North American car, minivan, SUV and pickup truck will contain 394 pound of aluminum by 2015, up from 350 pounds in 2012 and about 340 pounds in 2010. By 2025, 7 out of 10 new pickup trucks made in North America will have aluminum bodies, Ducker’s analysts forecast.

Such a sea change may be hard to fathom for steelmakers that have long dominated the automotive industry.

The second report describes another audacious scenario: a homeowner with a broken dishwasher getting a bar code for the faulty part, then going to a nearby 3-D printing center where the part will be made.

Three-D printing is on the verge of becoming mainstream technology, a milestone that will revolutionize how products are made, shrink supply chains, and pose problems for companies trying to protect their intellectual property, according to a report produced by PricewaterhouseCoopers in conjunction with the Manufacturing Institute.

Based on a survey of more than 100 manufacturers, the report found that two-thirds are either experimenting with 3-D printing technology, using it to make prototype products or producing finished parts.

Three-D printing enables manufacturers to make products from digital images, speeding up product development and reducing production costs.

“I don’t find many companies that are not aware that this is something that needs to be evaluated,” said Bob McCutcheon, head of PwC’s U.S. industrial products group.

In addition to the broken dishwasher, the report cited the probability that, in the near future, a part needed for a commercial jet will be 3-D printed at the airport.

“I would envision those are relatively near-term opportunities,” Mr. McCutcheon said. “If we’re talking about it now and thinking about it now, it’s probably not that too far off in the future.”

Aerospace is an early adapter. General Electric is using the technology to make fuel nozzles for jet engines while Boeing makes about 300 small aircraft parts using 3-D printing, according to the report.

Mr. McCutcheon said manufacturers are thinking about what 3-D printing will mean for their business models and supply chains. Since the technology makes it possible to produce parts closer to the customer, firms that deliver spare parts and warehouses that stock them could see their business drop, according to the report

Two concerns the report highlights are whether 3-D printing can achieve the quality standards that customers demand and the lack of talent needed to fully take advantage of the technology.

Another issue: the threat to intellectual property should the computer files 3-D printing relies on be hacked.

While the report notes that the global market for 3-D printers is forecast to reach $6 billion by 2017, technology consultant Gartner forecasts losses of intellectual property related to the technology could reach $100 billion by 2018.

The big changes 3-D printing will bring to manufacturing are why they call it a disruptive technology. The same could be said for what aluminum intends to do to the automotive industry.

Aluminum’s long, slow foray into the automobile industry accelerated this year, thanks in part to stricter federal fuel economy standards. The standards require the average car or light-duty truck to get 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

In January, Ford introduced an aluminum-intensive version of its popular F-150 pickup truck in January. The 2015 model will have about a half-ton of aluminum in it. More recently, Ford unveiled a concept version of its Fusion sedan that incorporates aluminum technology.

Such mass-market cars were once off limits to aluminum because the metal is more expensive than steel. But the fact that Ford is committing to using aluminum in two popular models indicates that those cost issues are being resolved.

One of those advancements came at Alcoa’s Technical Center in Upper Burrell, where researchers developed a way of treating aluminum so that adhesives binding the metal to other automotive components last longer. That opened the door to using aluminum sheet in the structural framework of motor vehicles.

If you consider an increase in the number of vehicles expected to be made in 2015 and the amount of aluminum they contain, automotive aluminum consumption will be up 28 percent compared to 2012, Ducker forecast. By 2025, the North American automotive market will be using 10 billion pounds of the metal, it predicted, with Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler being the biggest users.

The automotive industry accounted for about 26 percent of the 95.4 million tons North American steel producers shipped last year, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. That’s a big chunk of business — whether it’s for aluminum producers to take or steel makers to keep.

Len Boselovic: 412-263-1941 or lboselovic@post-gazette.com

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