Examples of direct metal laser sintering (Credit: Econolyst)

3D printing still has 'significant hurdles' to overcome

There are still “significant hurdles” to overcome before 3D printing can be fully commercialised, according to a new report.

Better feedstock, better design software, better green credentials and faster and cheaper machines will all be needed before the technology can be widely adopted, according to the authors of the report, as will a new business model that can attract investment to an increasingly democratic manufacturing landscape while overcoming the issues of intellectual property infringement.

But advantages such as lower-costs, more responsive and customisable production, shorter supply chains and the deskilling of the manufacturing process provided by 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), are already providing the impetus and the UK must ensure it is at the forefront of this emerging sector, according to the report commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“There's a bit of hype out in the press saying everyone will have one in the home and when you break a cup you'll just print a new one. I think we're a long way from that,” said Professor Andy Keane, a fellow of the Royal Academy and head of the Astronautics, Aeronautics and Computational Engineering at the University of Southampton, who contributed to the report.

“But come back 10 years’ time and a lot of this stuff may be there,” he added. “It's unlikely it's going to change overnight but I can imagine a world where they're as common as a microwave.”

As noted by the report, the technology has caught the public imagination with about 16,000 articles on AM and 3D printing published in 2012, compared with about 1,600 articles in 20113 – growth that has been mirrored in the business world with the global market for AM products and services growing 29 per cent to over $2bn (£1.25bn).

AM’s ability to reduce the cost, both in terms of materials and a shorter supply chain, as well as greatly increase the potential for customisation of low-volume production and prototyping, is highlight by the report as a major driver for growth.

The ability to create more complex geometries than traditional machine tooling or injection moulding, such as latticed designs, also allows manufacturers to create products with improved performance, reliability and weight rationality.

Where the technology stumble is the twin issues of speed – an object a couple of feet squared can take days to print – and the cost of machines is still making it hard for the technology to compete with established manufacturing processes.

According to Keane, cutting production times to levels which compete with injection moulding is unlikely as the machines are limited by the scanning speed of the machines’ lasers.

But once the cost of machines drops far enough he believes factories of thousands of the machines slowly producing customised products is a perfectly possible scenario – especially due to the fact that the machines are reprogrammable allowing them to switch from producing one product to another in a matter of days.

“It's not inconceivable to see a factory of these things, once the cost of the machine is low enough and that is dropping. So it could be a game changer,” he said.

Another key barrier identified by the report is that the computer programs used to design products are often highly technical CAD software that are unintelligible to the average user , but Keane believes simple market forces will solve this issue.

“You've got a customer base in the millions, so you don’t have to do anything for a solution to appear,” He said. “There are enough kids in garages who will reckon they can be the next Google if they work it out.”

And with the expiry date for key patents targeting laser sintering additive technology, the lowest-cost 3D printing technology, coming in February 2014, the market is likely to shift again and the UK must ensure it is in a position to capitalise, according to the report.

“A lot of research activity goes on in the UK in these areas, we've just failed to really capitalise on it and building an industry making these things,” said Keane. “The UK's got quite a bit of catch up to do if we want to go into that sector.”

The report highlights a need to foster innovation in the UK, suggesting more government-funded competitions to incentives R&D as well as the development of AM clusters to allow cross-pollination of ideas between companies.

Finding mavericks to drive the sector would help to take advantage of the UK’s specific skills, rather than trying to go toe-to-toe with industrial giants such as the USA and Germany, according to Peter Marsh, author, manufacturing journalist and contributor to the report.

“People around the world like the British way of doing things. James Dyson has succeeded because he thinks differently; he is determined, gifted and personable and will keep on going against all the odds. Britain probably has more of these characters, and they should be backed,” said Marsh. “I do not believe that British manufacturing should remake itself in the image of Germany or the US; we have to make use of what we have got.”

'Additive manufacturing: opportunities and constraints' is available on the Royal Academy website.

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