3D printing not yet efficient for bulk manufacturing, says company boss

Image credit: Jonathan Juursema

Essentra Components MD tells E&T the technology will not be deployed any time soon at his company’s expanded facility in Kidlington

3D printing may not prove to be an efficient means of manufacturing simple plastic components on a grand scale for another decade yet, the boss of a leading global manufacturer has said.

Scott Fawcett, managing director of Essentra Components, said basic injection moulding technology remained the best bet for the next five years at least.

He said 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing (AM), techniques were “still a long way from being cost-effective” for his business currently.

Speaking following an expansion of his company’s specialist facility in Kidlington, near Oxford, Fawcett told E&T: “3D printing is probably the long-term technological game changer, but at the moment, the 3D-printing cycle times are so long that we’re still five, maybe at least 10, years away from being able to cost-effectively manufacture in volume via 3D printing.

“I’ve been with the business for six years and we’ve been watching it [3D printing] reasonably closely through that process.

“We bought some 3D printers. We’ve worked with a company in Belgium called Materialise who pretty much run a 3D-printing factory.

“But we’re making up to five million pieces of plastic a day in the Kidlington facility alone. It’s that huge volume of small components that 3D printing has not got anywhere near being cost-effective for yet, on a per piece basis.

He added: “We’ve been doing some trials around some of our slower moving items. When we make the slower moving items we tend to make around a year’s worth of stock. That’s clearly quite inefficient. We’d like to make a week, or a day, or an order’s, worth of stock. But you just can’t do it cost-effectively given the set-up times

“So 3D printing - potentially - has an opportunity to replace some of our slow moving stock in a shorter period of time, but it’s still a long way from being cost-effective today.”

Professor Richard Hague, chair of the Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing International Conference, said the efficacy of the technology had to be judged on a “part by part” basis.

He said: “Anyone who has an in-the-ear hearing aid that is custom-fitted to themselves and is produced by Phonak or Siemens or one of the large companies like that - who make millions of these things every year - that is produced by 3D printing, so to say it is a low-volume technology is not true.

“It depends on the components. It depends what you’re making. The reality is that for hearing aids it works because they’re small and complicated.

“If you’re going to make a very simple component that you can mould really easily, just stick with that - but if you want to exploit the complexity of the part and the AM approach, that’s what you should do.”

Futurologists have long predicted a world in which 3D printing could be used to produce everything from rubber ducks to kidneys used in transplant operations.

But so far the real-world applications of the technology have been relatively limited. 

Adidas announced earlier this month that it was set to launch 3D-printed shoes individually tailored to fit customers’ feet, and the processes have also been eagerly embraced by the automotive industry.

In his interview with E&T, Fawcett also stressed Essentra was seeing an improvement in its UK performance after its shares plunged on the back of a profit warning last year.

He said: “We have reported in the financial press that we’ve had some challenges the last couple of years. I’m pleased to say 2017 has started off well. We’ll be seeing growth through the first quarter.”

On the business climate following the triggering of Article 50, he said he was waiting to see the shape of future trade rules with the EU.

“I guess there’s just uncertainty at this point in time with Brexit,” he said. “The weaker pound we are experiencing at the moment has an upside and downside for us.

“Obviously, it helps our exports, but a lot of our material purchases are in US dollars, which get hindered by the weaker pound, so we don’t really see a great benefit one way or another. There are swings and roundabouts.”

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