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Alcoa makes a big bet on 3D printing

Aluminum giant Alcoa sees a big future in shaping metal with 3D printers.

The company said Thursday that it’s investing $60 million to create a manufacturing center specializing in advanced 3D printing techniques and materials.

“Alcoa is investing in the next generation of 3D printing for aerospace and beyond,” said Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld in a statement.

The new facility is under construction in Pittsburgh and will be part of Alcoa’s current research and development center. It will be used to research advanced 3D printing techniques and make the technology more appropriate for large-scale manufacturing.

Alcoa said it’s been developing a specialized manufacturing technique that combines 3D printing technology with traditional processes like forging, in which metal is heated and then pressed or pounded to shape the material. The company said it’s been using 3D printing technology to build tools and prototypes for the past 20 years.

Ray Kilmer, Alcoa’s chief technology officer, told Reuters that the team working at the new facility will attempt to develop cheaper metal materials that can be used to craft 3D printed objects because current materials used for 3D printing are expensive.

“What’s new now is the machines are getting better, faster and cheaper,” Kilmer said. “Alcoa is stepping into the process so we can get the performance and the cost to where they need to be.”

Alcoa (AA) isn’t the only company currently researching new ways to manufacture objects using metal.

A Seattle startup called Modumetal recently raised $33.5 million in funding and claims it’s developed a way to manufacture metals using electricity and nanotechnology, which generally refers to manipulating matter at the molecular level. Modumetal’s manufacturing process essentially creates metals that are grown layer by layer. The company claims that its metals used in certain offshore oil rigs are less prone to corrosion than other materials.

Many manufacturers are now looking at how 3D printing can help improve their business. Ford Motor Company, for example, recently enlisted the services of a startup called Carbon3D to help create 3D-printed protoypes of car parts.

However, there’s still a lot of work to be done before 3D printing is as widespread in manufacturing as traditional methods. In an interview with Fortune over the summer, Ford’s team leader of additive manufacturing Ellen Lee said that current 3D printing technology is not as fast as traditional manufacturing techniques that can quickly create millions of parts.

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