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3D printing ‘will fall on its face’ without boardroom support

Joseph Flaig

A 3D printer prints an object (Credit: Shutterstock)
A 3D printer prints an object (Credit: Shutterstock)

In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg changed the course of history.

His printing press, often called the most important invention of the millennium, helped books spread beyond the religious and scholastic elite to billions of people around the world. With the Gutenberg Bible – the first mass-produced book – as the original ‘killer app’, the technology’s success was assured. 

Today, 3D-printing evangelists believe their technology could have a similarly momentous impact. The technique, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), “is poised to transform the $12tn global manufacturing industry,” according to George Brasher, HP’s UK managing director. “It promises to democratise industrial production, dramatically reducing costs and production cycles.”

The printing giant, which recently led a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group in Westminster, also believes AM could help dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. Research by A T Kearney for the company concluded that widespread 3D printing could help cut global emissions by 131m tonnes to 526m tonnes by 2025. And, of course, it is putting powerful, customisable manufacturing of everything from artificial limbs to printed pizzas within everyone’s capabilities. 

The UK is well-placed to take advantage of this booming technology – but many roadblocks stand in the way.

Patchy support

Industry leaders, politicians and academics highlighted the issues. The technology is still expensive, and cannot always produce parts with the low tolerances demanded by manufacturers. Political support is patchy, while too few people are trained to use the machines. Insufficient materials performance data is available for safety-critical applications, holding back designers and engineers.

Producing material granules by grinding plastic into small pellets is an expensive and energy-intensive process, while metal printers are yet to reach their full potential. The potentially revolutionary technology is held back by the size of printers and production issues such as high porosity.  

Some at the meeting also accused 3D-printer manufacturers of carving out monopolies. “What they have done – a lot of them – is they’ve tried to hold on to the material sales,” said Phill Dickens, professor of manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. As a result of the roadblocks, attendees agreed, AM is nowhere near its potential. 3D printing is much less than 1% of total manufacturing.

In the UK, Dickens added, the main issue for adoption lies in the boardroom. “There are not enough people within companies at director level that understand the business benefits.”

Manufacturing bosses need to know the business case and commercial drivers for AM, said David Wimpenny, chief technologist at the Manufacturing Technology Centre. “If that’s not there, any innovation – however exciting it is – will just fall flat on its face. We need directors to be engaged.”

As ever, engineers could provide the solution. Graeme Bond, CEO and technical director of AM company FDM Digital Solutions, said professionals trained to use 3D printers are the most effective demonstrators of their potential business benefits. “The people who know how to use the machines are engineers… once they get it, it just goes off like a spark, it ignites inside a business.”

Technology centres and universities already showcase the possibilities offered by AM, and other avenues exist – TWI runs three-day training courses for companies considering the move, proving its feasibility. But, at the meeting, people called for a unified national strategy with wider ‘knowledge transfer’ and training. 

More political support is needed at both national and local level, they said, with calls for incentives and tax breaks to ease the daunting transition into AM. Regulations and standards will also provide a level platform from which to launch 3D printing initiatives. 

Printing money

If these issues are overcome, the UK could become the world leader in 3D printing. HP’s report found the country is the third-fastest adopter of the technology worldwide, and the second in Europe for current readiness to adopt the technology for manufacturing. 

If the evangelists are right and 3D printers come anywhere close to the impact of the printing press, UK businesses could end up printing money.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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