The U.S. is historically known for making grand things. This country built the Hoover Dam, constructed the Golden Gate Bridge, and even invented the mass-manufactured automobile. Our nation’s ability to manufacture quality products at incredible rates even helped turn the tide of wars.
Unfortunately, while the U.S. was once considered a manufacturing powerhouse all around the world, the U.S. has fallen behind in the manufacturing industry. While America has fallen behind in the manufacturing industry, other countries have stepped in to take our place.
The U.S. workforce would highly benefit from the return of robust manufacturing. In fact, bringing the U.S. manufacturing industry back to prominence is a frequent promise during most major U.S. elections. But manufacturing has changed significantly in the past decade.
If manufacturing is going to make a comeback in the U.S., the country will need to be a leader in manufacturing innovation and the digital transformation that’s occurring across the industry. It will also need a dedicated manufacturing workforce familiar with the advanced manufacturing technologies that are reshaping how we make things.
Programs like Hybrid Autonomous Manufacturing, Moving from Evolution to Revolution (HAMMER) are designed to prepare the next generation of manufacturers to not only adapt to advanced manufacturing and digital design but also innovate how we design and make parts[JC1] . Northwestern University is one of several institutions collaborating on HAMMER to educate upcoming advanced manufacturing professionals while advancing manufacturing processes. This collaborative venture has received $26 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a new advanced manufacturing research center.
The GovDesignHub recently spoke with Dr. Jian Cao to learn more about HAMMER and gain her perspective on the future of manufacturing in the U.S.
GovDesignHub (GDH): Can you give our readers a basic overview of HAMMER? What is it? What organizations are involved? What is its mission?
Dr. Jian Cao: HAMMER is an NSF engineering research center. We are focused on developing hybrid, advanced manufacturing solutions and accelerating the change in the manufacturing industry from an evolution to a revolution.
When we think of mechanical parts and how they’re traditionally manufactured, we think of a huge press or a machining center. Part of our mission is to change this process to enable the more effective usage of materials and more rapid production of parts, and enable advancements such as the light-weighting of products.
When we are talking about light-weighting materials or light-weighting the final part, we want to have the material do its job at the location where it’s needed. But the strength of materials very much depends on their microstructure and how we make them. Therefore, we want to place the proper microstructure at specific locations through this hybrid advanced manufacturing process so we can lightweight the product. That’s the whole idea.
“This method also helps create a faster turnaround time from the original material to the final product. It also enables the manufacturing of parts in a distributed manufacturing mode, closer to where they’re needed to help overcome supply chain issues.” — Dr. Jian Cao
HAMMER is looking to develop the knowledge and tools so that people can codesign the part’s functionality, the materials, and the manufacturing processes – together – to achieve light-weighting. This method also helps create a faster turnaround time from the original material to the final product. It also enables the manufacturing of parts in a distributed manufacturing mode, closer to where they’re needed to help overcome supply chain issues.
We are excited to collaborate with Ohio State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to achieve this vision.
GDH: According to the National Science Foundation, HAMMER is intended to, “…assert American leadership in advanced manufacturing by developing and transitioning new manufacturing technologies to industry use.” Why is this necessary? What trends and current events have driven the NSF to invest in new manufacturing technologies?
Dr. Jian Cao: This is directly related to American competitiveness. If you think about manufacturing, it plays a critical role in the country’s economy and its national security.
Therefore, the ability to manufacture parts and products in an efficient, effective, and environmentally conscious way is incredibly important for our nation. It is time to think about how we can do things differently from how we traditionally do things and rethink how we manufacture parts and products., This is why HAMMER is so essential today.
GDH: In a video about HAMMER from the Ohio State University, they discuss metal parts manufacturing and some of the problems manufacturers face when forging large metal parts. What challenges does 3D printing large parts like this create? Why isn’t 3D printing and additive manufacturing the de facto alternative to forging?
Dr. Jian Cao: One of the themes of HAMMER – and one of the keywords that you’ll hear us say frequently – is “hybrid.” A hybrid manufacturing process combines these different manufacturing processes to create a new process that has all of the benefits of its individual processes but overcomes their corresponding weaknesses.
As a publication covering the 3D printing industry, you’ve invariably witnessed 3D printing programs struggling to print quality parts. In many of these cases, they may be struggling with the porosity and/or the surface quality following the printing. Forging can help to close those pores, improve surface finish, and therefore, give you better mechanical properties.
“We are not replacing 3D printing. What we are proposing to do is to look holistically at different manufacturing processes that are available to us.” — Dr. Jian Cao
By combining forging and 3D printing into a hybrid manufacturing process, we can eliminate these challenges. We can also enable flexibility in the mechanical properties of different locations in a part that is more ideal for their applications or use cases.
We are not replacing 3D printing. What we are proposing to do is to look holistically at different manufacturing processes that are available to us. We think of 3D printing as one additional tool in this basket. The question is how do we design and execute a process using the different tools in the basket to yield the best properties needed for the best performance. That is our research.
GDH: What role does digital design play in enabling these advanced manufacturing technologies? How do you see that changing into the future, if at all?
Dr. Jian Cao: Digital design is a common thread that runs through all of the activities in the HAMMER Center. It is critical in the design process, simulation process, and physical execution of a manufacturing process.
The importance of digital design will only increase in the future due to the variety of parts we can manufacture. We want to expedite the process from the initial part design to the final manufacturing process. Speed is key for our critical supply chains and the evolution of point-to-need manufacturing. Digital design is one of the tools that will enable us to develop these types of streamlined processes.
GDH: Part of HAMMER’s mission is to develop new manufacturing certification standards. How will these certification standards help to increase the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies?
Dr. Jian Cao: Sometimes, you can see the geometry after making a part, and that’s relatively easy. But when you’re talking about whether this part could last for ten or twenty years, that’s not something you know simply by looking at the part geometry. We need certification processes to ensure that the final product meets requirements and certain levels of quality and durability.
Many of those parts we’re designing and 3D printing today are one-of-a-kind. They’re new and unique because there was no way to manufacture them before 3D printing or another advanced manufacturing process was invented. However, the challenge is how we know they are up to the design requirements.
“We need a different way of thinking and a new approach to certification and testing.” — Dr. Jian Cao
The traditional approach to testing doesn’t work with 3D printing. Say you’re making 100,000 parts. The manufacturer will selectively sample them once in a while and then do a test to see whether they’re good or not. That is what’s known as a selective inspection. But if you are only making one part that is completely unique, how do you know if the part is good or not? We need a different way of thinking and a new approach to certification and testing.
HAMMER is working to combine the simulation data with the manufacturing process data and material data to develop a new method of certification. Otherwise, the final customer or end user can trust that the part we manufacture is of high quality, durable, and meets requirements.
GDH: Another part of HAMMER’s mission is to train the next generation of the manufacturing workforce. How will the skills needed to work in manufacturing change when advanced manufacturing technologies gain adoption? What new skills will this next-gen workforce need?
Dr. Jian Cao: The workforce must adapt to this new environment. Also, the workforce must be trained to have a good physical understanding of the process, while also adapting to the digital world so the next generation of manufacturers can handle both the physical and digital elements of the next-generation hybrid manufacturing processes.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) will need to be a part of what we train our workforce on. They will need to understand how to utilize those tools and connect those tools to the physical understanding of the process and the final product.
The next generation of advanced manufacturing will raise a number of new questions and require new expertise and knowledge in the workforce. How do you incorporate different sensors? How do you understand and accommodate the uncertainties and variations that can result in the final part or product? We want the next-generation workforce to be able to answer these questions and be prepared to work in more flexible manufacturing processes.
We want to develop a diverse workforce because diversity brings many different perspectives. We particularly look forward to increasing women and underrepresented minorities in manufacturing to bring fresh perspectives to these new technologies, and they can bring advanced manufacturing skills to their communities and beyond. That’s our goal.