New technologies shape UK manufacturing: 3D Printing and nanotech

The countries’ smartest scientific brains are working relentlessly to develop new technologies and prepare them for commercial application. Peter Russell, head of RBS manufacturing and industrials, takes a look at two technologies with the potential to turn business models upside down and explains why UK manufacturers need to get involved now.

What the future holds

Supported by RBS

Governments, academia, industry bodies and business leaders are united in their belief that new technology will help propel manufacturing to new output and growth levels not experienced since the Industrial Revolution.

The market for game-changing technologies such as additive manufacturing (3D printing), nanotechnology, biotechnology and photonics to name a few, is expected to grow to more than £800 billion by 20151.

In recent years the focus of global research into manufacturing technologies has settled on two subjects: 3D Printing and nanotechnology. These will not only have a major impact on how manufacturing evolves but will also improve a vast range of products in our daily lives.

3D printing revolutionises manufacturing

Contrary to old-style subtractive manufacturing, where an object is finished by cutting material away, 3D printing creates objects layer by layer through additive manufacturing, directly from digital computer files. 3D printing permits the design of products with far superior qualities without the need for tooling. By eliminating many of the stages of conventional manufacturing it is less labour intensive, uses less material, is less wasteful and can use new materials that are light and strong with novel and/or improved properties.

Mass customisation

3D printing moves manufacturing from mass production to mass customisation as each product can be printed individually from 3D design information.

This gives companies the chance to change, not just the way they manufacturer their goods, but also their product lines, marketing and business models. Furthermore, 3D printing can be performed at point of consumption, implying that many steps in the supply chain could be drastically reduced, including distribution and warehousing.

3D printing affects all

However, smaller manufacturers are hesitating to get involved. Lack of detailed knowledge about these new technologies is the major hurdle discouraging such firms and this is where university research centres come in.

The Mercury Centre, part financed by the European Union, is a research facility within the University of Sheffield developing advanced manufacturing solutions through 3D printing.

“When we talk to SMEs they usually are aware of the basic concept, but they are often surprised to hear that 3D printing can be used already. We get a lot of specific questions about how businesses can benefit and what they need to do to introduce 3D printing into their production,” observes Iain Todd, Professor of metallurgy at the University of Sheffield and director of the Mercury Centre.

Researchers are keen to pass on their knowledge: “We offer a number of events, and of course, companies can just call us. We reach out to the whole supply chain as everyone is affected,” says Dr Martin Highett, manager of the Mercury Centre.

Industry roll call

Manufacturers interested to get involved are welcomed by the country’s academics. Todd notes that “Firms present us with real life problems for which we then have to provide the right application. This helps us to move our research in the right direction.” Highett adds: “There is no point developing something if it is never going to be used. Our goal is to get a technology out to the market as quickly as possible. For that, we need users that test it and help improve it.”

Nanotechnology promises superior products

Nanotechnology, which creates materials, devices and systems by manipulating matter at a microscopic level, has already reached out to a wider community of manufacturers.

The global nanotechnology market is forecast to be worth $48.9 billion by 2017 with the US holding a market share of 35%3. Looking at the number of nanotechnology firms operating in each country, the UK is ranked third in the world according to government research published in 2010.

Because of their large variety of properties, nanostructured materials can be used to improve a wide range of products. Graphene is considered a star among nanostructured materials. It was first isolated at the University of Manchester, earning a Nobel prize for physics in 2010. It is the thinnest material known and also one of the strongest. It conducts electricity more efficiently than copper and outperforms all other materials as a conductor of heat.

“The process of separating graphene from graphite requires further technological development before it is economically feasible to use in industrial processes,” comments Professor Ian Kinloch, an EPSRC research fellow at the School of Materials, University of Manchester.

“We need to understand better how it can be processed and how exactly it can be used in products,” he adds, but leaves no doubt that graphene is rightly dubbed a ‘wonder-material’.

“Its multi-functionality stands out. Thanks to its thermal and electrical properties, its strength, transparency and flexibility, its high energy storage and light weight it has the potential to improve the qualities of hundreds of different products.” Like his research fellows at Sheffield University, Professor Kinloch says collaborative projects between the university and industry are crucial: “Without those we couldn’t achieve commercial application as fast.”

New technologies economically superior

Despite concerns about the cost of materials required for 3D printing, the potential for cost savings through shorter supply chains provides a powerful answer to anyone who is still tentative in experimenting with this new technology in their business.

Early adopters confirm the economic benefits: Thogus Products, a custom plastic injection molder, found that, for a particular specialty part, 3D printing reduced the cost of manufacturing from $10,000 to $600. It also reduced the build time from four weeks to 24 hours and the weight of the object by upwards of 70%.

The biggest opportunity, however, lies in new revenue streams. 3D printing enables manufacturers to increase product variation and launch new products much more quickly. Prototyping is the largest commercial application of 3D printing today, estimated to be 70% of the market and its future looks very compelling. If you want to gain further insight please visit www.rbs.co.uk/futureofukhve.