November 30, 2015      

Optical measurement company Physical Digital Ltd. has opened the U.K.’s first automated high-resolution 3D scanning service facility. There are growing signs that the country is waking up to the potential of using the technology for manufacturing. So, what challenges does the U.K. face in nurturing 3D printing? And how can it encourage growth in this burgeoning sector?

Additive manufacturing (AM) offers “unrivalled freedom of design, as well as a potential to print parts on demand and develop new materials with unique properties,” according to Tamarin Adshead, operations and marketing manager at the High Value Manufacturing (HVM) Catapult, one of 10 “catapults” established by Innovate UK to help bridge the gap between business and academia.

She told Robotics Business Review that the U.K. has a “very strong,” high-value manufacturing sector, worth over £130 million ($245 million) per year. This includes the aerospace, defense, motorsport, and medical device sectors and is “perfectly positioned” to exploit AM, Adshead said.

“U.K. universities are at the forefront of research in AM, and together with support from the HVM Catapult centres and other leading independent RTOs [research and technology organizations], this places the U.K. in a strong position in AM globally,” Adshead said. “The U.K. National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing, led by Neil Mantle at Rolls-Royce, will identify the challenges which must be overcome and how best to address them to enable the potential of AM to be fully exploited in the U.K.”

Design changes needed

However, the biggest challenge is for people to “accept the design changes necessary to incorporate the 3D-printing build process and the layering and support structure,” noted Tim Rapley, managing director at Physical Digital.

3D printing requires skilled engineers to thrive in the U.K.

The U.K. needs highly skilled engineers, notes Physical Digital’s Tim Rapley.

“Another challenge is the education of the new younger engineers,” he said. “They have more 3D spatial awareness after growing up with computer games and computers, but they also need a firm grounding with engineering first principles and practical experience. It is best if they actually make something they designed themselves.”

“I believe that apprenticeships should be used more widely,” Rapley added. “We are missing a generation of apprentices because successive governments have pushed universities and degrees with minimal craft and practical skills, and this is now affecting industry, along with the lack of young engineers. Apprenticeships need to be introduced and marketed to a wider audience, and the education funding systems need to change.”

Looking ahead, Mike Kelly, director of U.K.-based additive manufacturer Innovate 2 Make Ltd. (i2M), is unsure whether any specific policies would help at this stage. He argued that U.K. is already “pretty well advanced.”

Instead, Kelly said that additive manufacturing is “a driver for improved product performance,” so British manufacturers need to accelerate the pace at which they’re adopting the technology.

Steps to 3D production

Rapley argued that a couple of strategies would help the U.K. keep up with the global adoption of 3D printing for production. The first would be to help small and midsize enterprises (SMEs) work with larger businesses across multiple sectors, he said.

In the process, the government could provide “capital expenditure relief” for SMEs to mitigate the high costs involved in setting up AM. The second step would be to “stop universities and catapults quoting for work against commercial companies,” said Rapley.

In his view, the main reason for the award of government and European grants to these organizations should be “to educate people, not compete against employers of the next generation of graduates.”

“I agree that universities and catapults should show what is possible and introduce new technology to the wider market, but not generate revenue against commercial businesses, which pay taxes, rent, rates, have staffing costs and overheads they have to cover before making any profit to invest in new technology,” he said.

More on 3D Printing: