Machinists Prepare for Invasion of 3D Printers

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By Jaclyn Diaz

The International Association of Machinists tries to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to technological advances in manufacturing, Jim Reid, the union’s director of safety and health, told Bloomberg BNA.

3D printing is the latest development that has Machinists worried.

“3D printers have the potential to eliminate production jobs” from union members, Neil Gladstein, director of strategic resources for the Machinists, said.

Gladstein predicts the changes will begin to affect workers in five to 10 years. To prepare, the union is educating members on the developments and implications of 3D printers.

Reid is advocating for a permanent class on the programming and operation of the machines at the union’s William W. Winpisinger Education and Technology Center in Hollywood, Md. The center already provides classes on collective bargaining, organizing, and health and safety.

“We need to make sure we teach our members and collective bargaining teams” about the consequences of 3D printer use in manufacturing, he said. “If you don’t get ahead, jobs will be lost. More and more employers are using 3D printers.”

Manufacturing Yet to Fully Bounce Back

Machinists have seen the rate of union employment in manufacturing work go down over the years, and the union is concerned about how 3D printing might exacerbate the decline.

Manufacturing employment has rebounded since hitting rock bottom in February and March of 2010 when 11.5 million workers were employed in manufacturing. In 2007, that number was 14 million. The rate of employment has yet to bounce back to 2007 numbers, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

Numbers slowly began to creep up beginning in April 2010, hovering between 11.5 million and 11.9 million until February 2013, when the employment figures rose to 12 million and continued to climb. Since February 2015, about 12.3 million manufacturing workers have been reported as employed each month, with 12.4 million reported in April 2017.

The number of workers covered under union contracts in the manufacturing sector, including Machinists, was 1.42 million in 2016—the fourth straight annual decline. Ten years earlier, 1.94 million workers were covered under union contracts in the manufacturing sector, according to data analyzed by Bloomberg BNA.

How 3D Works

The conception of a 3D-printed object starts with a digital design of the end product. Once the design is sent to the printer, the machine “prints” multiple small layers of material from the bottom up until the object is formed.

Silver, steel, wax and plastic are among the materials that can be used for 3D printing.

There are several 3D printing technologies, so companies across a variety of industries have been using it, especially in aerospace, Reid said.

Manufacturers Welcome Speed of Process

General Electric’s industrial businesses have been using additive manufacturing, another name for 3D printing technology, for years, Rick Kennedy, GE Aviation’s manager for media relations, told Bloomberg BNA.

Additive manufacturing has even been used for jet engines. The jet engine fuel nozzle on the LEAP jet engine for the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo was created using 3D technology.

Complex parts with elaborate interiors are easily formed with additive manufacturing when they otherwise can’t be made the conventional way, he said. “We are convinced our aviation parts will be far more durable produced the additive way. Our extensive testing is proving this out.”

Production and design cycles are decreasing as a result of this technology. “The complexities in the supply chain of receiving parts from numerous suppliers around the world that are welding and brazed together are being reduced,” Kennedy said.

It’s Not All Bad

There will be fewer jobs in manufacturing production, but there are opportunities for other union jobs associated with 3D printers to pop up, Gladstein said. That can be in manufacturing parts for the printers or working as an engineer.

The rise of 3D printing no doubt changes the manufacturing industry, but it’s nothing that workers haven’t seen before, said Tom Juravich, interim director of the labor center at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“This is just the new evolution of manufacturing,” he said. “While there will be an impact on jobs by 3D printers, what we’re not going to see is plants full of 3D printers and no workers.”

The technology is best used for custom orders or complex projects, he said. “They will mostly change small-scale production, but there will still be a need for factories. There are tens of thousands of products that could be better served with large factories.”

Unions Must Stay Ahead

Local union leaders need to learn to negotiate contract stipulations with employers on technology in the workplace. That way, the union can ensure its members are the ones working in those new jobs, not nonunionized engineers or management, Reid said.

By creating a training program at the union’s education center, union members can be armed with training that makes them indispensable to employers. The union won’t be able to save every job, but they can save some, Reid said.

Unions like the Machinists must plan ahead, Juravich said.

“If we look at history, it’s the unions who have remained ahead of the curve in terms of technological changes” that have always been more successful, he said.

Employers are looking to invest in worker training, too. The hub for additive manufacturing at GE Aviation is at a factory in Auburn, Ind., where GE has developed training programs for workers. Additive machines must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to be used for the production of airplane parts, Kennedy said. GE workers require significant training prior to working on the machines.

“We really don’t see additive as an opportunity to radically reduce jobs on the shop floor. But training is definitely an important factor,” he said.

GE Set to Invest More Into Tech

3D technology isn’t going away any time soon.

GE Aviation created centers in Ohio and Alabama dedicated to 3D printing technology and to mass produce the LEAP fuel nozzle tip. The company plans to expand its investments in additive manufacturing. In 2016, GE announced plans to invest $1.5 billion at its Global Research Center to expand the technology. Other GE businesses, including GE Power, GE Healthcare and GE Oil and Gas, are also increasing use of additives and are investing in software, materials and machine technology.

In 2017, GE will become a provider of additive machines, materials and application engineering to several industries and businesses outside of the company, from aerospace and automotive to medical and luxury goods.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jDiaz@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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