Is AM the New Enabling Technology?

Additive manufacturing can move industrial arts to digital manufacturing and into the hands of the next-generation workforce.


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We need to attract a future generation of skilled workers, and we want that future generation to be motivated to fill the gap that exists and then maintain a level of job satisfaction. Additive manufacturing (AM) may be able to attract and satisfy just such workers. 

Recently, I discussed this issue with Scott Simenson, program director of Information & Telecommunication Technology for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and director of the Digital Fabrications Lab at Century College (century.edu), and Jim Mishek, chairman of Vistatek (vistatek.com). I came away with some interesting perspectives.  

First, there are two main motivators for job satisfaction (at least according to Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory): the work itself and the recognition. Surprisingly, money is not a top motivator. Following this theory, let’s take a look at the role additive manufacturing can play. 

AM is the new enabling technology. It allows you to create, touch, feel, show or fix almost any shape. For the motivation of a future manufacturing professional, this is particularly significant—what could be more fulfilling than holding a finished product that you created? So, how do we teach this new way of manufacturing to the next generation?

For one thing, today’s shop classes need to be transformed into next-generation labs that merge computational technology with manufacturing technology—similar to the digital fabrication lab concept created by Neil Gershenfeld, director of The Center of Bits and Atoms at MIT (fab.cba.mit.edu). These labs can provide access to a variety of technologies that enable production of an end product, including CAD and desktop manufacturing technologies. 

In this context, AM plays a pivotal role in advancing what students are learning, in both a theoretical and applied fashion. It represents a whole new sphere in technology-based education. It helps students understand the difference between a 2D and a 3D world. They can conceive products and ideas better, and they can test and prototype quicker.

However, just as manufacturers have discovered the real-world value of additive and subtractive manufacturing working together, that same value should be reflected in manufacturing education, especially at the high school and college levels. You can’t present AM alone; it must be taught alongside subtractive methods. 3D printers are certainly attracting the next generation, but will they be able to keep them engaged in manufacturing? It’s evident they provide a clear look at how something can be made, but they do not provide a clear understanding of the entire manufacturing process. Only using subtractive and additive together can achieve that.

The curriculum needs to change, too, incorporating everything from engineering and CAD to problem-solving and project management. On top of that, an integral part of education is getting students into a manufacturing facility to see firsthand the people, technology and processes that come together to make all the products we use today. The excitement of 3D printing only goes so far without its real-world application.