Abram Olmstead  | March 31, 2014

Future of Manufacturing Found in Embers of Rust Belt

When Michael Garvey’s promising Wall Street career was torpedoed by the collapse of the U.S. steel industry in the ‘80s, he had no idea the turn of events would eventually offer him a chance to play a small yet important role in reviving American manufacturing.

The twist of fate came when he answered a call to return home to Youngstown, Ohio, the site of his father’s suddenly struggling bronze casting foundry.

“It was an absolute train wreck,” recalls Garvey of his 1985 homecoming, when the region was hemorrhaging jobs.

Rejoining Trumbull Bronze Co., founded by his grandfather in 1918, Garvey helped steer the company through some lean years —years that included the foundry burning down. But by 2004, a radical re-forging of the company—rechristened M7 Technologies—shifted the focus to precision measurement for making high-quality equipment and components vital for advanced manufacturing. The company, with 32 employees, is now doing $10 million in annual sales.

A key breakthrough came several years ago when Gamesa, the Spanish energy company, tapped M7 to validate the molds for making its first U.S. wind turbines. Garvey’s firm developed a technique using laser and ultra-sonic sensors registering hundreds of thousands of data points.

M7 has since mastered doing this type of testing during the manufacturing process, allowing synchronized machine-tool adjustments to minimize imperfections and compress the production cycle.

“If we had this technology back then, there would have been no need for us to come in and validate it,” said Garvey. “It would have been validated right in the manufacturing process.”

M7 designed its latest measurement technology while serving as the main commercial entity in a project supported by the Army Research Lab, focusing on developing 3-D Imaging and other advanced manufacturing technologies for military and commercial use. The system, designed to be simple to operate and “massively intuitive,” can save the Defense Department hundreds of millions of dollars, said Garvey.

Now, M7 is involved in an even more ambitious project — a joint public-private initiative to jumpstart advanced manufacturing in the country. President Barack Obama proposed the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in 2012, with plans to develop at least 15 innovation institutes around the country focused on different initiatives.

The pilot project—rebranded as America Makes last October—is focused on additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. It received $30 million in startup funding from the Pentagon, with an additional $40 million from the more than 80 partners, says to Ralph Resnick, founding director.

The 3D printing process creates components by depositing thin layers of material—such as plastic resins or metals—on top of one another using a digital blueprint.

Among 3D printing’s benefits: shorter lead times, mass customization, more complex shapes, less material waste. The Energy Department expects the process to cut energy costs by half compared with the prevailing “subtractive” manufacturing processes.

“What we want to do is develop an additive manufacturing infrastructure that addresses everything needed—making sure they are quality products that meet the requirements of the users and that the material systems are consistent, repeatable and reliable,” said Resnick. “As part of that we are driving standards, design rules and design allowables, so that when someone goes go to design something they have all this information at their fingertips through what we are calling the digital estates…websites on steroids.”

The U.S. innovation centers are loosely modeled after Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, which many regard as a key factor in that country’s ability to maintain a stronger manufacturing base. There are nearly 70 German institutes, with an annual budget of $2.5 billion. Congress hasn’t approved the $1 billion requested by the U.S. administration.

Resnick says Germany’s culture makes collaboration easier, yet another reason for the U.S. to pursue a private-public approach. “America is a bunch of independent souls that prefer to do things on their own,” he said. “We need to be able to harness that energy and to let people see that working together is a positive and remove the barriers and the concerns, and facilitate an atmosphere that encourages that collaboration.”

Other leading companies—such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and John Deere—are also participating in pre-competitive research, sharing the cost and benefitting from the combined expertise of multiple partners.

M7’s role will be to drive material and process improvements that are key to more rapid adoption of the technology, said Garvey. The firm’s 46,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing and R&D facility is housing many of the new innovation center’s research efforts.

While larger companies are already using additive manufacturing techniques, Garvey says a centralized hub can accelerate the technological advances of the industry as a whole and hasten market adoption.

“With the national center in Youngstown, we have a legitimate opportunity to become that kind of hub,” he said. “But it is going to take a tremendous amount of effort and work. And if I have anything to do with it, I’m going make sure they put forth that effort, that they don’t squander this opportunity.”