Pittsburgh’s long-standing reputation as a hub of manufacturing has followed it into the 21st century, despite the face of its traditional industry changing dramatically. Boasting more than 120 research centres, 3000 advanced manufacturing firms employing 96,000 people and more than 1600 engineering graduates per year, the Pittsburgh region’s strength across areas such as industrial machinery, speciality metals, precision machining and electrical equipment is readily evident. In 2014 alone, it saw 68 advanced manufacturing projects worth more than $450m in capital investment.

At the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, sophisticated research partners with industry to explore the potential of advanced production technologies such as additive manufacturing (AM) – otherwise known as 3D printing – to transform the way the world makes things.


Collaborative thinking

Research in AM is accelerating in anticipation of greater market penetration. To plug some of the knowledge gaps in the new industry, Pennsylvania-based precision manufacturer Oberg Industries has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh’s Ansys research lab, an AM facility equipped with some of the world's most advanced manufacturing equipment, using alloys, metals, polymers and other materials to print components for every industry. Since 2014, AM researchers at the Swanson School have attracted more than $6m in grants from groups such as America Makes, the National Science Foundation and the National Energy Technology Laboratory.   

“When we go out and talk to our Fortune 500 manufacturers, introduce them to what the University of Pittsburgh is doing and show them possible industry solutions, we continue to expand the knowledge base of AM within our customers,” says Oberg vice president of sales and marketing David Rugaber. “This is really a win-win for the university and Oberg Industries.”

Manufacturers remain the region’s largest employers by revenue: Alcoa, US Steel and PPG Industries lead Pittsburgh’s top five grossing companies. German manufacturers Bayer, Lanxess and Siemens are among the more than 394 foreign-owned companies in the area.

GE approval

Pittsburgh’s latest anchor tenant is GE, whose massive $39m greenfield investment in its 12,000-square-metre Center for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA) is developing 3D printing technologies for the aviation, oil and gas industries. The investment is building the area’s reputation as an AM hub and bringing these technologies into the mainstream. GE joins 3D industry leaders such as ExOne and threeRivers 3D, already based in the Pittsburgh area, who are among the top 3D equipment builders in the country.     

“One of the reasons we came here is for the workforce. The area has really exploded with technology in recent years, and many people are coming in with hi-tech backgrounds,” says CATA site leader Jennifer Cipolla. “We have access to the universities. Carnegie Mellon University, Pitt, Robert Morris, Youngstown State and Penn State all have good AM programmes, and we want to take advantage of that.”

GE’s site selection highlights the value of Pittsburgh’s supply chain: providers of metal powders and other materials required for AM are abundant in Pittsburgh. At one time providers for the steel industry, local foundries and other smaller businesses are helping drive advanced manufacturing.

AM will penetrate and transform every industry sector, according to Ms Cipolla. “It allows us to create much more complex internal geometries at a lower cost, which means you’re going to see the performance of industrial products improve very rapidly,” she says. “GE is at the forefront of innovation in this area, pushing the boundaries and driving their industrialisation.”

Ansys director of mechanical development Al Hancq is optimistic about the region’s fast-growing AM network. “GE is a worldwide company, and it chose Pittsburgh as its centre of excellence for this technology,” he says. “What does the future hold? I’m not sure, but I think Pittsburgh has a big chance to be at the centre of that.”