How Texas Could Help Revitalize Manufacturing in America

A Conversation with Dr. Joseph Beaman of UT Austin

When you think of “manufacturing,” perhaps images of old American steel mills long since closed might come to mind. Or maybe you think of frenetic assembly lines across the sea, where the next generation of smartphones is being built.

But it’s possible that soon you’ll think of manufacturing much differently: smarter, more precise, much smaller, and once again in North America. Technologies like 3D printing will allow for the design and production of ever more niche products, and jumpstart a manufacturing renaissance in the country. And Texas could take the lead in getting us there.

Dr. Joseph Beaman of UT Austin.

To learn how Texas can make that happen, we recently spoke with Dr. Joseph Beaman, Professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Beaman was the first academic researcher in the field of Solid Freeform Fabrication — also known as 3D Printing, or ‘Additive Manufacturing’ — and his lab developed the process known as Selective Laser Sintering, which uses a high-powered laser to integrate materials into a three-dimensional form. The funding for these initial projects came from National Science Foundation and also the state of Texas, which was looking to broaden its economic reach during an oil bust in the eighties.

“When Texas has invested in advanced manufacturing, it’s really paid off.”

Now, in the midst of a similar downturn in the oil and gas industry and a surge in advanced manufacturing technology, Beaman argues its time for the state to once again commit to the manufacturing sector. And he has an idea for how they could do it.

What Additive Manufacturing Is, and Where It Could Take Us

“Manufacturing is all about high volumes, right? High-volume, low-value manufacturing. If I’m going to manufacture something in the traditional way, I have to tool, and that’s really expensive. And the price drops as I hit more and more volume — that’s what economies of scale are all about.

But what additive manufacturing enables is essentially small-lot manufacturing — you can start to do high-value, low-volume manufacturing.

People are now using advanced manufacturing to make parts that go on parts, real products — they’re not just prototypes anymore. But the machine isn’t quite there to do it yet commercially, the cow’s not out of the barn yet. And I think that’s where the real monetary value is going to end up being, so I think it’s important for Texas to be in the mix on that.

With additive manufacturing, it allows me to build one thing just as cheaply as I could ten thousand of them. If you just want one of something I can give it to you, it’s just a software file. You don’t have to tool.

Now you’re not going to make razor blades that way, but things that are high-value, low-volume are where it makes sense. Things like personalized prosthetics. Let’s say there’s a below-the-knee amputee. You’d scan their residual limb and then 3D print a custom prosthetic. It’s no one else’s, it’s personalized. If you’re a runner, we’ll make you a custom shoe. And that kind of advanced manufacturing is a lot closer than you think.

It also completely disrupts the supply chain. In the future, you might not have an additive manufacturing machine at your house, but it might be somewhere in your city or region. And you’d send it a digital file and have it printed, then you’d go down there to pick it up. Or a drone will fly it to your house!”

On the Importance of State Funding for Advanced Manufacturing

“Other states are putting money into these advanced manufacturing research projects, matching money. And it’s making it hard for Texas to compete. You know, the Ohios, the Michigans — they’re all investing in it.

Manufacturing isn’t something that’s dying out, it’s something that we need. It turns out that something like 60–70 percent of all patents come from manufacturing. So the message there really is, even though it’s maybe only 30 percent of the economy, it’s where you do a lot of the invention.

There’s a lot that happens when you come up with a product, but there’s a lot more that happens when you actually make that product. 60–70 percent of all R&D spending is done in manufacturing. Per capita, it’s the biggest area for patents.

For instance, look at producing medical devices. In making medical devices, the big question is, ‘Could I make this faster?’ Well, additive manufacturing and 3D printing is one of the options, but there’s other things. We’d like to set up a system where you bring doctors and engineers together to come up with medical device solutions, and then actually get them built.

To actually do the initial testing, get to trial faster, and get the product out faster, and basically build a new medical device industry. I think there’s a real opportunity for that right now in Texas. And I think advanced manufacturing enables that, along with good medicine. We have some of the best medical schools here in Texas.”

The Model for Funding Advanced Manufacturing Research

“The model for Texas is the Fraunhofer model [a German research society]. The federal government, as well as the local regions, put up money, and then companies can get R&D done for something like 70 cents on the dollar. So they’re not getting it for nothing, but they’re getting it at a discount.

And it’s great for universities, too, because they’re co-located with universities, so students get to come over and work on these projects, and faculty get to come over as well.

So you have this really applied research, which creates a lot of engineering value. And it’s one of the reasons why the German economy is typically an export economy, and we’re not right now. I think the state of Texas itself could emulate that. I don’t think anyone in the U.S. is doing that right now.

It would be a great time for us to set up this model in Texas and really become the state for advanced manufacturing. We don’t want to do what everyone else does. We want to create the products of the future. Ten years from now, we want to be where manufacturing should be twenty years from now.”

Dr. Beaman will be presenting on advanced manufacturing at the TAMEST Texas Research Summit on Friday, November 13, 2015. The Texas Research Summit will highlight the outstanding research and innovation taking place in Texas, while giving researchers in Texas a better understanding of federal agency priorities. The objective is to make Texas research institutions more competitive in seeking federal funding for research, which would lead to increased job growth and stronger research programs at major academic and industrial institutions. You can learn more about the summit here.