The Engineer’s Victorian readers - for whom manufacturing meant smoke, noise, grime and manpower - would have regarded the machines in our latest in depth report with utter disbelief. That’s because these ’additive manufacturing’ techniques, which enable engineers to print functional components from scratch, turn the traditional approach to making something completely on its head.
As we report, this vanguard of manufacturing technology has some compelling advantages. It dispenses with tooling costs, generates practically zero waste and enables the design and production of highly optimised lightweight structures that are impossible to make with traditional processes. Few claim that the technology is likely to replace traditional manufacturing techniques; it’s expensive, relatively slow and isn’t likely to be economical for high-volume production runs of standard components any time soon. But for low-volume production of the kind of optimised, high-value components thought to be key to the UK’s manufacturing future, additive techniques have great promise. What’s particularly exciting is that although most of the machines are produced overseas the UK leads the world in researching, improving and applying the technology.
“For low-volume production of optimised, highvalue components, additive techniques have great promise”
Champions of the technology certainly have plenty to shout about. A few years ago the only application you ever heard about was its use in the production of hearing-aid casings. Today, additively made components are used on satellites, F1 cars and orthopaedic implants, and while the technology still has a long way to go in terms of speed and repeatability, most of the technical challenges are well understood. Potentially far bigger hurdles are acceptance, understanding, and persuading risk-averse industries - such as civil aerospace - that parts produced in this way can be trusted.
There’s an important lesson here for the UK’s coalition government as it considers the potential role of technology in a rebalanced economy.
Although its promise is huge, additive manufacturing is still in its infancy. The technology must be given room to breathe to fulfil its potential. And while the real economic payback may be years away, those working on it need funding and support now. So far, the new science minister, David Willetts, has made some of the right noises. Talking to The Engineer and other members of the press shortly after taking office, he criticised impact assessments, professed an understanding that blue-sky research needs to be protected and promised to work hard to protect the science and engineering community from the impact of cuts. For the sake of Britain’s future high-tech manufacturing sector, let’s hope he means it.
Finally, a reminder that The Engineer Technology and Innovation Awards 2010 are now open for entries. Set up to celebrate the best examples of UK technology-led collaborations, finalists will be invited to a special lunch at the Royal Society in London this December. Full details on how to enter can be found at www.theengineerawards.co.uk