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Editorial: Local institute to play key role in national manufacturing initiative

Aug. 20, 2012 @ 11:13 PM

The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing has long made its mark in making the latest in manufacturing equipment available to small companies and providing training so workers know how to use the equipment.

It has been on the cutting edge of manufacturing technologies and making their use available to companies and entrepreneurs who would otherwise not be able to afford the equipment.

Now the institute -- with locations in Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport and Rocket Center in West Virginia -- has been tabbed to take part in a new federal project which aims to boost the nation's manufacturing capabilities. Last week, federal officials announced that they were forming the first of what they plan to be 15 manufacturing institutes around the country to make up what the Obama administration calls the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.

RCBI will be one of 40 companies, colleges and nonprofit organizations taking part in the National Additive Innovation Institute, which will have its hub in Youngstown, Ohio, and involve participants from West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The federal government is providing $30 million over three years, and the participating organizations are contributing a combined $40 million toward the project. Other participating organizations from West Virginia are FMW Composite Systems, Inc. of Bridgeport, Touchstone Research Laboratory in Tridelphia and the National Energy Technology Lab in Morgantown.

As the name of the new institute makes clear, it will be focused on additive manufacturing, which is gaining headway in the manufacturing world because it can offer some significant advantages. Additive manufacturing, also referred to as "3D printing," is the process of building something by adding layers upon layers, as opposed to conventional machining in which items are formed by subtracting or cutting away material.

Charlotte Weber, RCBI's director and chief executive officer, says additive manufacturing begins with a computer-aided design showing the desired object in three dimensions. Once the sketch is produced, a 3D printer reads the digital data and lays down successive layers of materials to produce the object envisioned by the design.

Building a prototype of a new product can take days or weeks using traditional techniques, according to Weber, but a 3D printer typically can produce a prototype in a few hours. The technology also allows for quick modifications and design changes, she said.

The purpose of this new institute will be to accelerate the development and use of additive manufacturing technology for commercial manufacturing.

RCBI already has made additive manufacturing techniques part of its offerings to West Virginia companies, including startups, and for training. It's inclusion in this project makes perfect sense -- and is a recognition of what RCBI has accomplished so far in this particular field as well as other manufacturing processes.

We look forward to what this new initiative will bring to U.S. manufacturing in general and to business development in the Mountain State.

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