- You’re somewhat of an additive manufacturing veteran. How has it changed over the last 20 years?
It has changed in many ways, 20 years ago for example the term Additive Manufacturing was not commonly used at all. The additive layer technologies at the time were most commonly called Rapid Prototyping because that’s exactly what they were mostly used for. As the parts produced started being used as ‘final use’ parts they were commonly called ‘Rapid Manufacturing’. In reality, to be a true manufacturing ready technology in all but a few markets, it takes a lot more than simply being able to manufacture the goods, so this term was at best premature and at worse misleading. In the end it was agreed that the term Additive Manufacturing would be adopted industry wide. Over the last 20 years the number of technologies has grown as have the number of available materials. By far the biggest growth though has been in the number of manufacturers and users. The biggest reason for this is that many of the key patents registered in the 1980’s and early 90’s have expired meaning allowing new players to enter the market. In 1999 you simply could not buy an FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) printer for less than £10,000 and they were only manufactured by one company (Stratasys). Now you can buy FDM printers for a few hundred pounds with start-ups popping up on an almost daily basis. Despite the drop in price, the number of materials that these newer machines can process has increased resulting in more versatile platforms. Of course it would be unfair to say that the prices of those early machines were driven purely by the restricted number of suppliers as key component systems such as electronics have drastically reduced in the same timeframe. The appearance of cheaper systems has led more users and wider adoption generally which in turn has led to the growth of associated revenue streams such as system support, materials and sub-contract services. In all the total AM industry value has enjoyed a compounded growth rate of around 20% year on year. Another big change that the market expansion has brought is the entry of 3rdparties such as material companies. 20 years ago the big material companies were not interested as the market place was too small for them. BASF for example have now released materials for all of the main polymer AM technology processes and they will continue to do this being joined by others such as 3M. The same is true for the powdered metals markets with entries to the market by companies such as Sandvik and Carpenter Technology.
- How far down the road have we come in relation to its adoption into the manufacturing process?
The technologies have travelled a long way through the classic Gartner hype cycle in the last 20 years. You still hear claims such as ‘Imagination is your only limitation’ and ‘If you can dream it you can make it’ which is sure to get AM professionals everywhere rolling their eyes in despair and searching for a piece of wall not covered in health and safety notices and year planners to bang their heads against. Fortunately though we have come a long way since former 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental declared that 3D printing could be “as big as the internet was in its day” back in 2012. The industry goes through cycles of catchphrases both in company marketing and observers comments. At one time you couldn’t get through a product launch or AM seminar program without hearing the word revolution. It was all about how additive technologies were the dawn of a ‘new industrial revolution’ and how they were about to revolutionise the world. There was even talk about how AM would make money obsolete as people would be 3D printing everything themselves (including their own 3D printers) so would no longer need to buy things. After this there was a phase where everything was described as ‘game changing’. People would talk about how the technology was a game changer and how their latest product release was a game changer to these game changing technologies etc. The phrase of choice now though is ‘Industrial’ but this is also a bit of a stretch right now. The growth in the sub $5,000 desktop machines (that were incorrectly predicted by some to be in every home by now) has slowed down. The fastest growing area now is in the larger, more expensive equipment. At one time AM machines for metals were very much the underground indie band at the AM festivals. Now however they are still not the headlining act but are at least appearing lower down the order on the main stage. This in part is due to the smaller companies being bought by larger concerns such as 3D systems, Renishaw and GE with much larger knowledge pools and R&D facilities than where they were as they first came stumbling out of the university labs and start-ups where they were spawned. Adoption is now at an early yet credible stage. For several years now there have been parts fitted in both military and civilian aircraft. Parts have been produced in their millions for markets such as hearing aids and dental implants and we are now seeing custom 3D printing parts being offered in the automotive field such as the ‘Mini Yours’ project by BMW to name but a few. I say adoption is early because although these are all credible real world use cases, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of where we are going.
- Where does it go next?
When talking about his drinking Paul Gascoigne famously said “I never make predictions and I never will”. Predictions are a funny game but we can see trends and look at a few things that have started to happen and are almost certain to continue. Once of the shifts in the AM world is towards series parts. AM is still moving away from its identity as ‘prototyping technologies’ but it is too often now said that they will only ever be a good fit for custom parts. Don’t get me wrong they are a great fit for this which is precisely why they are being so widely adopted in the medical world. The geometries that they are capable of producing however, also mean that there are times where they can add functional advantages that have nothing to do with lead times or reduced economic batch quantities. Aerospace is a great example of this where parts can be produced with internal lattice structures rather than solid volumes, resulting in lighter weight parts. Lattice structures also result in increased surface areas making them ideal for thermal exchange so we are seeing heat exchangers / cooling structures being printed with extremely high efficiency rates. The cost per part may well be higher right now when compared with technologies such as casting , moulding or machining but the ability to reduce part counts and add value though inherent functionality can more than justify this. We have already seen this in examples such as the fuel nozzle developed by GE for the LEAP engine. Here GE are ramping up to production volumes of around 38,000 parts per year with the part count being reduced from 27 per assembly to 3. To be clear Additive Manufacturing is not going to replace other manufacturing technologies such as injection moulding but its adoption will grow as a mainstream complimentary technology. Right now more parts are produced per year by injection moulding than any other technology and it’s not going to disappear any time soon. AM technologies are strong in areas where injection moulding is weak such as initial investments (for tooling), lower economic batch quantities and design flexibility. Conversely however AM is weak in areas where injection moulding is strong such as amount of available materials, cycle times and cost per part. For this reason the two technology groups will coexist quite happily. Injection moulding has had a 120 year head start so it’s no surprise that adoption levels still need to go some way to catch up but they will. Another big change is the move to automation in AM for things such as material and part handling which will also continue. We are already starting to see automated cells where parts flow from printing to post processing and inspection. The automated cells of today will turn into the mass production automated lines of tomorrow. As far as materials are concerned, as more companies enter the field, the number of materials available will not simply grow but rather explode as happened in other manufacturing industries before. Right now there are a lot of commercial releases of reinforced materials, flexible materials and metal alloys but in the labs are smart materials such as colour changing and so called programmable polymers. Some of the biggest changes are being brought about bigger companies entering the field. Well established groups such as Renishaw and Ansys have already made their moves though a combination of acquisitions and the incorporation of their own expertise but we are now seeing true industrial giants active in the field. I’ve already mentioned companies such as GE, BASF and 3M but there are others such as Autodesk, Siemens, Hewlett-Packard, DMG Mori and Ricoh who have entered the market. The R&D capacities of these companies (and other major players who will soon join them is going to accelerate the maturing and adoptions of AM in ways that it has not seen in its history.
- What’s the biggest challenge facing the UK manufacturing industry right now?
Going to conferences and reading papers now you hear many of the same concerns that have been repeated since the dawn of the industrial revolution namely shortages of people with the right skills, access to markets, and lack of funding for start-ups. All of those things are still true but the biggest challenge right now is a lack of confidence. Uncertainty is stifling investment whether we are talking about investment in new manufacturing facilities, upgrading existing ones or simply supporting inventors and entrepreneurs. Some of this uncertainty is caused by Brexit of course but there are other factors. We are still suffering from a dent in confidence that was caused by the last financial crash and this will probably continue for some time to come. There is another effect caused by the fact that our national psyche is more risk adverse than those of many other nations. In the Additive Manufacturing field for example, U.S. companies such as Carbon Inc and Mark Forged have started up around 5 years ago and both have pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. The UK continues to be blessed with talent pools which at the very least match those found in the Boston and Silicon valley areas of the States but the same rarely happens. UK industry needs to stop feeling so sorry for itself and start shouting and screaming a bit more about what it has to offer to attract more investment and create the atmosphere of confidence that it needs.
- What are the biggest opportunities and how does industry take advantage of them?
Advances in communication technology offer a huge opportunity. We have had the means to communicate rapidly with each other for many years but now we have a multitude of collaborative working platforms such as MS teams. This allows people spread across different sites around the world to chat and create files simultaneously. We are no longer simply able to trade and communicate across borders and great distances but we can work together across them too. This brings great opportunities not just for collaborations but also to decentralise organisations. The advantages of having groups put together on a small number of large sites are being eroded by the new breed of collaborative platforms. This means that organisations can relocate across many smaller sites each being able to work leaner and more dynamically whilst pulling in talent from more diverse areas rather than simply continuing to fish for talent from the same old pool time after time.
- How do you feel about Brexit and the impact it may have on UK manufacturing?
Brexit is an opportunity and a threat in short it is a big risk. As with any risk there is of course the chance that it could all work in the UKs favour but to be honest at this moment nobody really knows. The biggest problem for UK manufacturing will not be the tariffs but rather the lack of a customs union hampering the flow of goods in and out of the country. There are arguments on both sides of the debate about the size of the detrimental effect it will have on the constantly proclaimed skills shortage but it’s hard to see how Brexit could possibly improve the situation.
- What are you most looking forward to at The Engineer Conference/Expo, Subcon and Advanced Manufacturing this summer?
I’m looking forward to making new contacts whilst also catching up with existing ones. Keeping yourself up to date is a never ending challenge and these conferences / expos are a great way of doing that. Very often you don’t have to come away from these things with anything more than the sparks for new ideas to make the visit a valuable one.
- What would you put in Engineering Room 101?
The way that engineers are portrayed. There is the classic scenario where you are talking to somebody and as soon as you mention you are an engineer they instantly think that you must be able to sort out their central heating system, and strip out and repair the gearbox on their clapped out Ford Fiesta. You then have to tell them that actually you can’t do any of those things and that they don’t need and engineer they need a plumber and a mechanic which are not the same things. There is also the problem that engineering is portrayed as a stereotypical male profession. This is going to be difficult to change until we show all pupils at an age before they take their school options that gender has no effect on your ability to be an engineer.