3D printing: a reality check

A better understanding of the technical and commercial knowledge of 3D printing is key to manufacturing success. Dr Tim Minshall explains why.

Three years ago, 3D printing technologies were at the peak of the ‘hype’ curve. These technologies were predicted to drive disruptions throughout the world of manufacturing and become the foundations of a new industrial revolution.

Dr Tim Minshall, Reader in Innovation and Technology Management, University of Cambridge.
Dr Tim Minshall, Reader in Innovation and Technology Management, University of Cambridge.

Three years on, things have calmed down slightly and a clearer picture and more realistic set of expectations is beginning to emerge. However, if UK manufacturers are to capture value from opportunities presented by these technologies, there needs to be a joined-up approach to dealing with the barriers.

3D printing is a label used to describe a group of specific technologies, several of which have been around for more than 25 years. Each of these technologies offers a set of potential benefits and costs, and each is at a different level of maturity.

Reliable, unbiased and openly accessible knowledge of the real world performance of the diverse technologies is still lacking. While we have centuries of freely available data on the performance of traditional production processes, the same cannot be said of 3D printing.

Those companies that have detailed knowledge of how particular process/material/ application combinations work have, understandably, a commercial interest in not making this freely available.

And despite the promise of ‘plug and play’ use of these technologies, there is still a level of craft skill needed to make many of these technologies work reliably and consistently.

Add to this the on-going high level of noise generated in the media about 3D printing in general, and the result is a very confusing situation within which it’s very hard for manufacturing firms to assess the real potential of these technologies.

3D Printing University of Cambridge PQ - May 20163D printing can be used in several different ways: the three main ones are rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and direct manufacturing of final product.

There are also two categories of printers: consumer and industrial, but these distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred, especially for rapid prototyping.

Some analysts have compared this to the situation in computing in the 1970s and 80s, when small, low-cost devices disrupted the traditional market for minicomputers and mainframes.

However, 3D printing technologies are a very different class of technology to computers and hence any lessons from that specific situation need to be treated with caution. 3D printing technologies are not just about ‘printers’.

These technologies deliver value when there is clear alignment of appropriate equipment, material, application and business model. Trying to understand each of these four variables individually and in combination within a specific context presents an extremely challenging situation for manufacturing firms.

As a result of all these issues, the adoption of 3D printing technologies has presented different challenges for different sectors and applications.

For some, such as the customised hearing aids, the adoption has been rapid, widespread and delivered clear benefits. For others, such as aerospace, there has been the challenge of achieving consistent quality for batches of 3D printed components that reduce weight and/or improve performance.

Some analysts talk of the potential disruptions to current business models that could result in the widespread adoption of these technologies, with the example often given of spare parts. Why keep stocks of parts when you can use a distributed network of 3D printers to make what you need, when you need it, where you need it?

Dr Tim Minshall, Reader in Innovation and Technology Management, University of Cambridge.
Dr Tim Minshall is Reader in Innovation and Technology Management at the University of Cambridge and leads the Institute for Manufacturing’s Technology Enterprise Research Group. The Group is running a research project funded by the EPSRC and ESRC looking at the reality and the potential of 3D printing for the UK economy; it also operates a UK research and industry network around 3D printing-enabled redistributed manufacturing. Tim is a member of the steering group developing the UK National Strategy for 3D printing.

However, while the economics of this may work for making parts and tools for use on the International Space Station or on board military ships, the business case for doing this more widely, is yet to be proven.

What does seem to be clear is that these technologies are being adopted in many sectors, and UK manufacturing firms need to ensure that both the benefits and the limitations of these technologies are understood.

Internationally, governments are increasingly getting involved in different ways of supporting the adoption of 3D printing through programmes such as skills development, standards setting and industry coordination.

In Germany, these technologies are seen as a key element within the increased digitalisation and connectivity of manufacturing labelled as Industrie 4.0. In Japan, the diffusion of 3D printing is seen as a key mechanism in supporting the re-generation of regional manufacturing.

And in the UK, there has been a recent strong push to identify and address the key barriers to the wider adoption of 3D printing.

Representatives from across manufacturing industry, government and universities have been collaborating on the development of a national strategy for 3D printing for the UK that will be published later this year.

So, three years on, some of the hype relating to 3D printing technologies has been reduced, but there is still a real need to improve the quality of our technical and commercial knowledge of these processes and materials, and ensure that UK manufacturing firms are well positioned to capture value from them.

Future of Making Things

Launched by Autodesk and The Manufacturer – and supported by key partners, the Future of British Manufacturing Initiative takes a hands-on approach to enable British design and manufacturing companies to respond to the challenges of trends the likes of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things.

Gain a firmer grasp of the trends that are shaping design and manufacturing, and how other companies are already responding to them, by attending one of the four regional Future of Making Things event at a High Value Manufacturing Catapult Centre:

  • May 25, The MTC – Coventry
  • June 15, AMRC, Rotherham
  • September 21, AFRC, Renfrew