May 22, 2024

From Novel Additive Manufacturing to Driving Serial Part Production

Penn United Technologies, Inc., a precision metals manufacturing company, is no stranger to technological innovation and expansion. The company, based in Cabot, PA, emerged in the market in 1971 as a traditional tool and die shop and, within several decades, became a full-stack enterprise providing stamping, carbide, plating, and assembly.

Today, the business encompasses 600,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space and boasts 730 employees—all partial owners as part of its employee-owner stock plan. In addition to its six business divisions—the company recently added an additive manufacturing (AM) sector.

Anchored by its existing robust tool and die infrastructure, Penn United Additive is carving a lane for itself, proving to be a vital player within its supply chain. Its expansive metal printing services laud end-to-end capabilities from new alloy parameter development to post-processing with a customer base spanning the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), aerospace, nuclear fuel, medical devices, and oil and gas.

Early AM adoption

Despite its manufacturing experience having harmonized well with its additive onboarding, its initial adoption was less straightforward, drawing more questions than answers. While AM’s potential to improve product performance was substantial, its immeasurable longevity posed significant risks, leaving leadership contemplating its role within its business strategy.

However, when a long-standing nuclear energy customer and partner leaned on the company’s expertise to improve its filtering and heat exchange part applications, Penn United received the nudge it needed to accelerate its AM exploration. Penn United received a laser-powder bed fusion (L-PBF) 3D printer to start production as part of an operational agreement.

“They came to us with an opportunity and said, ‘Hey, we’ll buy a piece of equipment and put it in your facility,’ and we were ready and willing to say yes,” said Charlie Phillips, Penn United Technologies Vice President.

Venturing into unchartered waters of a new technology was a challenging feat. The company had to consider utilizing its latest 3D printer and recruit a proficient team capable of leveraging its expertise to identify, test, and qualify additive designs and materials to meet standards for high-level part applications.

“We had a resin printer in our engineering area that gave us some experience, but nothing close to metal,” Phillips said, “so we went out and hired an individual who was a good fit, helped us get started with the customer, and got us in a perfect position.”

Six years later, Penn United Technologies’ additive division has watched its print farm blossom alongside its footing in the industry, deepening its additive partnerships while adding two EOS M 290 mid-size machines, an EOS M 400 with a four-laser option, and an ExOne M-Flex binder jet machine used for development of harder, non-weldable materials.

“We developed 16 alloys independently of the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parameters. We’ve gotten good at that,” explained Jake Jones, Penn United Technologies additive project manager. “We developed a new aluminum alloy in less than two weeks, so our turnaround time is speedy, and that’s something we do quite well, developing new and exotic materials.”

Additionally, the business’ AM sector has further demonstrated its value within the supply chain during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, providing high-quality components to fuel Ukraine reactors quickly and efficiently.

“The timing demand drove it. The components were directly related to the Russian and Ukraine issue and the embargos around nuclear fuels to provide power to the Ukraine,” Phillips noted. “At the end of the day, we were just working to try and meet their demand and take care of our customer—we did that, but there was a bigger purpose behind it.”

Barriers on the road to AM business scalability

Despite its successes, Penn United does not exist within a silo and its operations are impacted by the industry’s adoption rate. While some industries are fully integrating the technology into production, others are slowly gearing up, creating gaps across customer education, specification requirements, material costs, funding, utilization, and beyond.

“The frustration of the market is that it hasn’t tipped in complete adoption, and we just don’t know when that’s going to happen,” Phillips noted. “Everyone says it’s going to happen, but when is that, and who’s going to have the fortitude to ensure they’re still in the game when that does?”

What’s more, AM has increasingly become a go-to option for small-batch part production due to its ability to create high-quality, customized, and intricate features. However, from a business perspective, Phillips said it is economically unsustainable.

“The business case doesn’t survive making prototypes and one-off parts. We want to make serial production parts for a contract manufacturer like us,” Phillips shared.

Penn United represents companies that constitute a critical component to advancing the AM industry, but the aforementioned constraints significantly impede their competitiveness among larger corporations.

In addition to upticks in research and development (R&D), Penn United advocates for an equal amount of financial investment to ensure long-term viability.

“When research and development are increased without matching financial investment, it builds a disconnect within the supply chain hindering progress. It’s a symbiotic relationship that will only position Penn United and other alike companies as the long-term solution,” Phillips said.

“The frustration of the market is that it hasn’t tipped in complete adoption, and we just don’t know when that’s going to happen. Everyone says it’s going to happen, but when is that, and who’s going to have the fortitude to ensure they’re still in the game when that does?”

Charlie Phillips, Vice President

“The challenge for additive manufacturing for contract manufacturers is the sustainability of the business. Our goal is to ensure that it will survive in an organization like ours into perpetuity,” Phillips said. “That’s the bigger challenge because 300 different machines are being sold. How do you build a sustainable business plan if you have to consider all that?”

Connecting to the AM ecosystem with the America Makes AM NOW project

For the past several decades, American manufacturers’ reliance on global supply chain partners for technological advancements, discoveries, and innovations has created fragile, and often disconnected supply chains. As a result, manufacturing innovation institutes like America Makes—the first of the Manufacturing USA network, based in Youngstown, OH, driving AM advancement is key as more U.S. industries increase onshoring efforts.

America Makes is comprised of members from industry, academia, government, workforce, and economic development organizations who collaborate to expedite the adoption of AM and enhance U.S. global manufacturing competitiveness. Founded in 2012 as the Department of Defense’s national manufacturing innovation institute, it is managed by the not-for-profit National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining (NCDMM).

As a member of America Makes, Penn United has supported the Institute’s AMNOW program since 2020. The initiative, spearheaded by NCDMM and America Makes, promotes U.S. Army readiness through a strong digital manufacturing supply chain. This involves improving the supply chain, elevating AM as a reliable technology, and capturing production data as a contract deliverable.

Combining Penn United’s AM technology offering with precision traditional manufacturing and machining made them well-suited as an early supplier partner for the AMNOW project. In total, the company participated in nine projects, delivering more than 320 parts, and their engagement expanded its material capabilities, validated the effectiveness of its process, and gained a deeper understanding of process correction and data analysis. The experience with AMNOW led to two additional aluminum and Inconel alloys they had not used prior and paved the way for expanding into titanium.

“By participating in the AMNOW project, we were allowed to develop new materials and ultimately expand our capabilities,” Jones said.

Local AM businesses driving global impact

As one of the fastest-growing manufacturing innovations today, AM undoubtedly holds an increasing importance within the U.S. and global manufacturing landscape. As noted with the impact of Penn United across selected industries, the question no longer remains—if, but when AM will take its rightful place.

If Penn United is an example of the future, it’s an indication of the power of cross-functional collaboration to accelerate AM expansion signaling a bright future ahead for those willing to seize the opportunities.

“Over the years we’ve developed a strong expertise in precision manufacturing. Now, we are applying those capabilities to our AM division—and I believe we’re on a great path to scale,” Phillips said.

Learn more about Penn United Technologies, Inc. and Penn United Additive.

Photo Credit: Penn United Technologies, Inc. 

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