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Government must lead on 3D printing strategy

13 April 2015

Philippa Oldham considers how Additive Manufacturing will move from novelty, news-worthy products to mainstream manufacturing.

Philippa Oldham

The industrial hot topic of the moment, which is capturing headlines in both the broadsheets and the trade press, is 3D printing or as it is more commonly known in industry, Additive Manufacturing (AM).  

More often than not these articles feature “gimmicky” products or one-offs that demonstrate low volume, bespoke products, often made from plastic. They can be extremely clever and innovative, but don’t seem to be relevant to industrial manufacturing. 

Some industrialists are championing this technology, convinced that it will revolutionise manufacturing. While, others are swift to point out its limitations; slow speed, often high cost and lack of material choice. Many engineers don’t understand what all the fuss is about, to them AM (under its pseudonym of rapid prototyping) has been around and in use for over a decade, particularly within the domains of aerospace, defence and motorsport. 

This fascination with 3D printing has reached government, with several announcements and comments on the technology, ranging from 3D printers in schools to research funding. Most importantly for manufacturing, AM was covered in the 2013 Foresight Report, The Future of Manufacturing which recommended:

“facilitating the emergence of challenger businesses. These exploit new business models and cross cutting approaches in technologies, across sub-sectors, to drive ‘disruptive growth’ in manufacturing. For example, support might focus on businesses with strong design capabilities specialising in additive manufacturing technology, which collaborate with others to work across manufacturing sub-sectors...”  

Sadly, since then the recommendations have been largely ignored and the Government has not taken a lead in setting a strategy for AM. Industry has now taken the lead to help set this UK industrial strategy and the Institution is keen to be a part of it. 

This is important because AM will impact many industries, and sharing knowledge and experience is absolutely key to moving products through the research stages to commercial applications. A national industrial strategy would give a framework to help focus research and enable us to commercialise on our innovations quickly. 

At present, those UK companies with a big research budgets are actively considering AM, and doing significant work on the barriers to further adoption: quality, reproducibility and recycling, to name a few. But commercial considerations mean that they will not share this knowledge with smaller organisations (yet!). A national strategy would need to consider the reskilling that I think will be required to really capitalise on AM. 

And finally, it would help tackle the thorny issue of intellectual property. The UK government estimates that IPR protection is costing UK businesses £9.2 billion annually, so it is not to be taken lightly. 

The process of understanding how we capture our digital designs needs more governance to make sure that we reap the rewards.  Many believe that the know-how behind this digital printing technology cannot be captured; if this is the consensus then it can and will lead to substantially devalued IP rights. 

The fundamental technical and market changing technologies will stretch the concept of IP and, as we have seen with the music industry, over time the environment will adapt, including the law.    

I am very excited by the opportunities of AM (3D printing), and firmly believe that the UK needs a national strategy. If we don’t act quickly we will see our advantage slip away as countries which have adopted a national strategy raise the stakes. Looking at our industrial competitors such as Germany, China and the USA they have gone down this route and are closing the gap fast. 

We must move beyond media hype and look at how the UK will benefit from AM, or indeed will struggle if action is not taken. So I will continue to press for a national strategy and hope that, post-election, the new Government will take the lead on 3D printing.

Philippa Oldham is a Chartered Engineer and Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (Twitter: @Philippa_IMechE)

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