3D printing could usher in a revolution, but small, local businesses unlikely to benefit

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Large manufacturers benefitting from advances in 3D printing and other technology are saving time and money, but the speed of change will likely leave small and mid-sized companies behind.

Gregg Profozich, director of advanced manufacturing technologies for California Manufacturing Technology Consulting (CMTC) in Torrance, said nearly 99 percent of U.S. manufacturing businesses are considered small, with many employing 20 or fewer workers.

And integrating the latest technology — regardless of its efficiency — is often not a priority for these businesses. For many, it’s not even possible.

“The problem is that most small manufacturers are so busy working in the business that they can’t work on the business,” he said. “When Joe doesn’t show up they have to go run the press mill, or the injection molding machine or they have to do the billing. They are in the business but they are not stepping back. They don’t have a department for stepping back and thinking about the future, and that’s where we try to come in. That’s what my role is about, to think about new technologies that we might be able to use to help them adopt.”

Profozich was a featured speaker at Tuesday’s “Exploring the Next Generation of the Technology Revolution” forum at Caltech’s Athenaeum. The event was sponsored by Technolink Association, a coalition of leaders in aerospace, academia, innovation and other fields who are seeking to develop a virtual high-tech corridor in Southern California.

Profozich displayed a pair of slides that clearly illustrate how manufacturing processes have become more efficient.

The first showed a circular metal piece that had been machined out of a large metal block by a CNC (computer numerical control) cutting tool. The piece was surrounded by piles of metal shavings that had been carved away to create the part.

“It’s like the old sculptor who starts with a block and keeps chiseling away until you end up with the art you want,” he said. “That’s the mentality we had the past. But now we have technologies that allow this.”

At that point he displayed another slide that showed a part that was being created with no waste at all.

“That is a directed energy-deposition machine that’s shooting a stream of powder into the stream of a laser,” Profozich said. “It’s producing the part in just about any dimension you’d want.”


Bob Machuca, a district manager with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., agreed that some small and mid-sized manufacturing firms are not in a position to incorporate newer technologies into their operations.

“I was talking with a small company last week that has 15 employees,” he said. “At one time they had 86 people, but now the vice president is doing HR work, marketing and working on their website. Because they now have a small amount of employees they don’t have the time to invest in the new technologies that are coming out now.”

But some small manufacturing businesses have been able to make that leap, according to Machuca.

“This situation presents a lot of opportunities for contract workers,” he said. “They might be employees who are retired or were laid off. They can come in and help companies take advantage of some of these technologies, and they will work part-time for businesses that can’t afford to pay for another full-time employee. This helps smaller companies get back on board and get in a better position to eventually hire someone full-time.”

Many of the new technologies speak to the immediacy with which products can be designed and produced and 3D printing is at the forefront, according to Profozich.

“I hired a guy a year and a half ago,” he said. “I hired him on Thursday and he came into work Monday morning with a CMTC ring he had printed over the weekend. He was already wearing it. It’s that fast. So what’s that going to mean to manufacturing and supply chains that go all the way across the world and use containers ships? Those are huge impacts.”

3D-CAM, a Chatsworth-based company, utilizes 3D technology to provide “rapid prototyping.” That gives engineers, designers and inventors dimensionally accurate plastic parts that they can hold, test and show in a matter of days, instead of the weeks or months it used to take with conventional manufacturing.

“We start with a CAD (computer-aided design) model and then create the parts,” Senior Project Quality Manager Hiren Patel said. “When you have multiple pieces that have to fit together it helps to have the physical parts in your hand. That way you’ll know quicker if you need to go back to the CAD model and change something.”

3D-CAM has five 3D printers, which Patel refers to as stereolithography machines.

As technology moves forward, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) virtual reality (VR) and 3D printing are increasingly being harnessed to help design and produce new products.

AI is expected to be a $16 billion industry by 2022 and the AR/VR market could reach a whopping $162 billion by then, according to Futurism.com, an online resource that covers breakthrough technologies and scientific discoveries. Analysts have additionally predicted that the 3D printing market is already worth about $30 billion.

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