Alcoa Inc. is investing $60 million to expand its research center in Upper Burrell to develop new 3D printing technology.
The expansion of the Alcoa Technical Center will make room for additional equipment and roughly 100 new employees, and underscores the importance Alcoa places on 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — as it shifts toward higher-margin products for the aerospace industry.
“Combining our expertise in metal alloys, manufacturing, design and product qualification, we will push beyond the limits of today's additive manufacturing,” CEO Klaus Kleinfeld said in a statement Thursday announcing the expansion, which the company expects to complete by March. “This investment strengthens our leadership position in meeting fast-growing demand for aerospace components made using additive technologies.”
The technology produces solid objects from a computer file by printing thin layers of plastic or metal on top of another. The process is fast and flexible, allowing manufacturers to make specialized products and get them to market quickly.
Companies such as Alcoa and General Electric have been trying to expand use of 3D printing in manufacturing. The products made at Alcoa's technology center won't be sold to customers, but that work will shape the processes and materials used in its manufacturing plants.
The center's researchers will develop different metal-based powders used in printing products and try to find ways of lowering the cost and time it takes to make an item.
“It's a very broad investment in looking at the full spectrum of technologies required to realize 3D printing as an industrial process in the future,” said Ray Kilmer, chief technology officer at the technical center.
Most of the focus will be on products for aerospace customers.
Alcoa has moved away from its mining and smelting roots to become a more diversified maker of lightweight metal and alloy products for aerospace, autos and other industries.
The company posted flat second-quarter profits in July largely because of restructuring charges from closing high-cost smelters and mines around the world, a move prompted by declining global demand and prices for aluminum. But aerospace revenue jumped 29 percent from a year ago, and shipments of aluminum sheet for cars and trucks rose 200 percent. Both industries are looking for lighter materials to make vehicles more fuel efficient.
Alcoa boosted its presence in aerospace recently with a $1.5 billion deal to buy RTI International Metals Inc., a Moon-based titanium maker. Through that acquisition, Alcoa gained 3D printing capabilities in titanium, other specialty metals and plastics for the aerospace, oil and gas and medical markets.