CHICAGO (Reuters) -- Metals company Alcoa Inc. said today it will invest $60 million to expand its r&d center in Pennsylvania to explore ways to make 3D printing viable on an industrial scale to produce parts for the aerospace, automotive and construction sectors.
The move is part of New York-based Alcoa's strategy of investing in more advanced aerospace and automotive products while selling off some of its more traditional yet costly smelting facilities.
Also known as additive printing, 3D printers build three-dimensional metal parts by layering and heating metal alloy powder, which are then treated in a forge to make them stronger.
The 3D process has been used to build prototypes for 25 years, but only now is making its way into regular production.
Alcoa's chief technology officer, Ray Kilmer, said the current available alloys are expensive, and part of the focus of the expanded r&d center will be to explore new aluminum, titanium, nickel and other metal alloys.
"The (alloy) powders need to be improved upon, they need to be cost effective, and they need to work better in the additive printing process," Kilmer said. "What's new now is the machines are getting better, faster and cheaper. Alcoa is stepping into the process so we can get the performance and the cost to where they need to be."
Kilmer said additive printing could be used to manufacture anything from fasteners to wheels and jet engine turbine blades. The r&d center would also look at different additive printing technologies and ways to reduce the waste of costly metal alloys that occurs in traditional manufacturing processes.
Construction on the new facility is due to be completed in the first quarter of 2016.
Proponents of 3D printing say it can help aircraft manufacturers cut the cost of parts made from titanium, which costs seven times more than aluminum.
Norwegian titanium component manufacturer Norsk Titanium AS recently announced plans to establish the world's first industrial-scale 3D printing facility in the United States.
U.S. conglomerate General Electric Co has said it will introduce its first 3D-printed parts in an aircraft engine platform in 2016, saying that the lighter and simpler parts will improve engine performance.