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A new training ground for 3D printing opens in Louisville

A rendering of the new Additive Manufacturing Competency Center.A rendering of the new Additive Manufacturing Competency Center.
A rendering of the new Additive Manufacturing Competency Center.Courtesy of the University of Louisville

While large companies in the U.S. retool and upgrade their workforces to take advantage of rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing techniques, universities are becoming more focused on training the next-generation workforce expected to fill those new positions.

In Chicago, as Fortune reported recently, that training is now taking place at the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, a research center that brings together private companies and Midwest universities to test new digital tools that might reduce the time and costs of current manufacturing processes. Now Louisville, Kentucky, is getting into the mix with an additive manufacturing training center that has been in the works for the last two years.

The UL Additive Manufacturing Competency Center (AMCC), which will officially open this October, plans to be a hub for students and professionals to gain training in 3D printing and advanced manufacturing for metals. The 10,000-square-foot AMCC is a collaboration between global safety science organization UL and the University of Louisville, which is hosting the UL AMCC at its Institute for Product Realization, the university’s advanced manufacturing research park. There’s good reason for UL and the university to consider this a smart move—according to Wohlers Associates, the global additive manufacturing industry is now worth more than $4 billion, and will continue to grow.

“What we’re focused on is building the safety and quality infrastructure for building 3D printing and manufacturing,” says Simin Zhou, vice president of digital manufacturing technologies at UL. “But to ensure scalability, you have to have a well-trained workforce.”

The AMCC’s first course—Advanced Training on Metal Part Production—will be a five-day primer on the fundamentals of additive manufacturing materials; students will also design and build 3D-printed metal parts. More in-person, as well as online, courses will be introduced by UL and offered through the AMCC over the next year. The overall goal: introduce, sometime in 2016, a professional certificate program for designers and engineers to augment their traditional manufacturing knowledge with new 3D printing and additive techniques.

Two instructors will eventually be on-site at the UL AMCC to provide hands-on training. Zhou says UL envisions students and professionals going to the center for a week or two to take classes, with concomitant online classes for those who can’t be there in person. The AMCC made its first big hire this month: Ed Tackett, formerly the director of the RapidTech Center at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering, will be the AMCC’s director of educational programs.

As for locating UL’s advanced manufacturing center at the University of Louisville, Zhou says it was a no-brainer: “They’ve been working on metal additive manufacturing for long time.”

University of Louisville’s experience with metals manufacturing goes back more than 20 years, when it established the on-campus Rapid Prototyping Center in 1993 and became the first U.S. university to purchase selective laser sintering (SLS) equipment. The university’s advanced manufacturing research park—the Institute for Product Realization (IPR)—was an initiative already underway by the time UL joined as a second tenant.

“The park itself is part of a greater vision we have for the university, one that is connected to our mission of being a metro research university,” says Neville Pinto, dean of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering and a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Louisville. Pinto anticipates the IPR being something of a launchpad for small- and medium-size companies interested in building out their rapid prototyping capabilities but lacking the space and infrastructure—large 3D printers, for example—to do so. Funding for the IPR comes from the nonprofit University of Louisville Foundation (which Pinto describes as the “banker for the university on projects that could advance us significantly”).

Already the IPR boasts General Electric and vehicle-design firm Local Motors as tenants; in July 2014, the two companies opened a 35,000-square-foot “microfactory” for the rapid prototyping of major appliances like refrigerators, air conditioners, and more. Adding the UL AMCC will be another way the university can reach out to other companies that are retraining or upgrading their workforces in additive manufacturing processes.

“The whole idea is to have an ecosystem to keep the region competitive in manufacturing for a long time,” Pinto says. “That’s the aspect that is the big opportunity for us: How do you leverage universities to actually directly connect to industry?”