Techcityblog.co.uk is very lucky to have a fifth guest blog from Iain Cameron who worked for 25 years in the Department of Trade and Industry and Cabinet Office. He also worked for over ten years on business improvement in the UK automotive supply chain. Recently he has been developing a start-up, Industrial Strategy Communications and has worked on projects with Oxford University, the UK Commission for Skills and SMMT Industry Forum.
3D Printing – some queries answered
I published an article on 3D printing at the start of July with SMMT Industry Forum, the leading business improvement organisation for the UK automotive supply chain. Reaction from readers was very positive and several interesting issues were raised. So now Danielle has asked me to do a further piece on the subject for Tech City Blog, there are some extra crowdsourced issues to write about.
The overall conclusion from my first piece is that 3D printing is being applied in several different areas in many countries – global aerospace and automotive firms are introducing the technique into carefully selected product lines while a retail product and services market is also developing in both Europe and the USA.
One issue raised is how 3D printing knowledge and skills are going to be disseminated. Part of the answer is the Fab Lab movement. A fabrication laboratory is a fully kitted workshop giving users the power to turn ideas and concepts into reality and build prototypes – part of a drive to boost grass roots entrepreneurship. The Wikipedia article explains how MIT in Boston helped kickstart the Fab lab idea which has spread to over 30 countries.
In London, DevLab runs the largest open device lab currently out of IdeaLondon in Shoreditch. Online there is www.fablabsuk.co.uk andhttp://fablablondon.org which explains that they are planning to open a facility in September 2014. The Institute of Making at UCL has a MakeSpace which is a workshop with a range of tools for members to use. It is primarily aimed at students but there is a public programme as well. Outside London there iswww.fablabmanchester.org and around 15 advanced manufacturing research centres are to be found in universities across the country.
The engineering education charity, the Smallpiece Trust is running a course on 3D printing technology on 14-17 July at the University of Warwick. In Sunderland an FE college is developing a 3D printing training facility to support the local Nissan auto plant. Some UK companies such as Forth Engineering are using their 3D printing facilities to attract apprentices. SEMTA has developed a Higher Apprenticeship in Advanced Manufacturing Engineering with eleven pathways including Aerospace, Automotive, Space Engineering and Wind Generation.
The government subsidised Manufacturing Advisory Service for SMEs has a specialist adviser who gives practical demonstrations of the technique and can be reached at email@example.com. Deloitte University Press is offering a free online course on additive manufacturing for business leaders so that they can assess the strategic implications of the technique. The course is 27 segments each 5-7 minutes long.
A second interesting issue posed by a reader concerns the environmental impact of 3D printing. This is a complex issue and the answer depends on the circumstances in which the technique is deployed. For example, the electricity consumed by the process is an important factor and this could be generated in a coal-fired powerstation or an offshore wind farm or some other technology. Another key issue is what the 3D printing technique is replacing. This can often be a machine process where the shape is cut out of a solid block of material . In some of these examples 3D printing is more efficient but there are others where it isn’t. Then there is the question of how the 3D printer itself works. In one series of tests inkjet printers emerged as wasteful.
The environmental footprint of a 3D print job can be improved by following some simple rules in executing the work – for example printing hollow rather than solid parts. Then there is the question of what material is used in forming with metals being particularly energy intensive. There is also a toxicity issue in respect of the fumes of certain plastics but there are standard data sources to explore this issue and find a safe medium.
Another issue raised is rapid prototyping. When I first came across rapid prototyping – in an academic advanced manufacturing context – 3D printing was a major feature of this approach. Since then rapid prototyping has become much more widely used as a development technique, part of ‘design thinking’. A large number of different methods of prototyping have emerged and can be easily accessed in the literature. Rapid iteration has become a major feature of rapid prototyping and it may well be the case that the best of way of doing a rapid test needn’t involve this technique but possibly something simpler, cheaper and faster. On the other hand there is evidence from the European retails sector that one of the fastest growing segments of business is still prototyping services. So the connection between 3D printing and rapid prototyping remains strong although it is important to be aware of all the other methods that are used these days.
Finally it is important to recognise that the capability of 3D printers is likely to progress in the next few years. Work is under way on 5 and 6 axis machines that will be able to execute much more complicated shapes. The first of these machines may reach the market in the next year.