Ed Tackett whirls through the fourth floor of UC Irvine’s Engineering Hall, showing off tiny toy figurines, a bright-red leg bone, a waxen skull and more.

We’re just finishing the housing for a ‘non-squish’ breast cancer detector,” he says, looking at freshly painted soft-pink components. Student intern Garritt Ong, 20, of Saddleback College looks on, hefting a block of resin to begin a project of his own. “I love it; I’m learning everything about everything,” he says enthusiastically.

All of the items on display and hundreds more have been designed on computers and produced via three-dimensional printing at the National Center for Rapid Technologies, or RapidTech, the only  onprofit in the U.S. dedicated to hands-on training of community college and university students in the next wave of advanced manufacturing.

Forget the Industrial Revolution and tool-and-die factory assembly lines. While custom 3-D printers are gaining popularity in home handyman projects, the printers here are industrial-strength, and so is the mission.

It’s a campus version of the supply chain of the future, academics and other experts say, and key to bringing full-fledged manufacturing back to this nation. President Obama is seeking $1 billion in next year’s federal budget to make the U.S. a world leader in advanced manufacturing.

The National Institute of Standards & Technology is hosting multi-agency workshops around the country to gather public input. One workshop was held Thursday, Sept. 27, at the Arnold & Mabel Beckman Center of the National Academies of Sciences & Engineering, on the UCI campus.

“This is an extraordinarily exciting time, characterized by many as a third manufacturing revolution. Technologies like additive manufacturing are changing the rules,” says Mike Molnar, director
of the new interagency Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office. “Just as computing evolved from mainframe data centers to personal devices, in the future, if you have an idea, you will be able to make it.”

UCI is already leading the way in biomedical and additive manufacturing, and in educating a future workforce. While the U.S. has pioneered these additive manufacturing techniques, European and Asian researchers and companies are catching on fast.

“China is not in a race to the bottom with us; they are in a race to the top. They have a very large number of high-tech factories, and they are incorporating the very latest advanced manufacturing technologies. So we need to remain one step ahead,” says Gregory Washington, dean of UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

“Having RapidTech on campus is a real plus. We hope to be one of the few universities capable of providing engineers with an understanding of their individual disciplines and, on top of that, who have an understanding of how things are made – literally from doing it themselves – so they can walk into companies and be commercially productive from Day One.”

Bringing real-world mechanical engineering shops back to universities and colleges is critical, says mechanical engineering professor Marc Madou, one of the first to sound the alarm on the need for more U.S. engineers capable of producing what they design. About 600,000 manufacturing jobs in the U.S. are currently unfilled.

“After the digital revolution, mechanical engineering shops on campuses fell out of favor. They were considered dirty, lowbrow. Now those attitudes are changing,” says Madou, who teaches an advanced manufacturing class for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students.

In 2005, he co-authored Micromanufacturing, which looked at the future of manufacturing worldwide. All his students also take a practicum at RapidTech each year, to learn how to turn theories into
prototypes and finished products.

Tackett, director of RapidTech, is blunt: “We have advanced engineering students come in who don’t know what a Phillips-head screwdriver is.”

The facility has more than 20 printers and other large pieces of equipment that help both academia and industry use modern technologies for engineering, biology and even arts projects. RapidTech has already produced everything from medical devices to architectural models to drum sets, as well as servicing such traditional sectors as aerospace and automotive.

Students from Saddleback College are employed as interns, and UCI doctoral students and researchers come knocking with project designs – as do Boeing, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army and hundreds of smaller companies and academic laboratories.

“We’re so glad that RapidTech is here. It’s just essential to have that kind of fabrication facility at a major university,” says Bruce Tromberg, professor of biomedical engineering and director of UCI’s Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic. He and fellow researchers have spent more than 20 years working on a laser breast scanner that’s less painful than traditional mammography
machines and may be far more effective with denser breast tissue.

Once they nailed down the advanced physics principles, they needed to figure out a way to craft a patient-friendly device containing their pioneering laser technology. Tromberg’s doctoral students modeled a handheld version out of Play-Doh and walked across campus to RapidTech with it, getting a testable prototype within days instead of months.

Swati Sharma and Giulia Canton, graduate students of Madou’s, have been laboring for months on nanoscale carbon wires for biomedical devices that could sense more cheaply and quickly than traditional tests how a drug is metabolizing or whether a disease is present in DNA. For them, Madou’s class and RapidTech are vital.

“They help me learn how to do things, not just study them,” Canton says.