Gadget fairs and cautious optimism

News editor

The new year seems to be heralding a period of uncertainty for business ahead of a long General Election campaign

The editorial staff at The Engineer wishes you all a Happy New Year on what for many will be the first day back at work following the Christmas holiday.

During said period of wanton gluttony and hostelry hopping, a farmer friend of mine was curious to hear about the latest innovations that are helping to shape the world of 3D printing, an area he believes could be utilised to great effect with the introduction of larger printing machines and metallic feedstocks. After all, why buy parts for farm machinery if the option existed to print them yourself?

His is an attitude held by many who think 3D printing will facilitate a shift in the way they can run their business, although he was cautioned to read The Engineer’s final blog of 2014 and the perils that await the amateur 3D modeller.

A large-scale machine that my friend might covet is available from 3DP Unlimited, whose 3DP1000 has a build area of 1000mm x 1000mm x 500mm.

The company’s platforms are available from under $20,000 and at that price he may ask whether it’s worth purchasing such a machine for ad hoc use.

This is one of the many questions being asked this week at 2015 International CES being held in Las Vegas this week, with Wednesday seeing a full day of discussions surrounding 3D printing and one session in particular looking at gaining access to 3D printing facilities without actually owning a machine.

Those with more modest requirements have, however, been active and last year US trade body the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) notes that sales of sales of desktop 3D printers were expected to reach 67,000 units in 2014, earning $76m in revenue, which itself is an increase of 43 per cent over 2013.

This trend is similarly reflected at CES and companies helping to fill over 14,000 net square feet of exhibition space (up from 7,200 net square feet during CES 2014) are 3D Systems, Autodesk, MakerBot, Materialise, Stratatys and XYZ Printing.

My farmer friend won’t be attending CES but he has made space in his schedule to take his toddler to see a pantomime. These annual exercises in on-stage fun and tomfoolery always have a happy ending and usually finish their theatre runs by late January.

The cynics amongst us might view the run up to this May’s General Election as something of a dystopian panto where less than kindly female characters suggest that foreign students leave the UK once their studies are finished, or where certain characters ‘turn again’ so often that they end up going around in circles.

Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF today warned: ‘Confidence can be fragile and with an election on the way it is vital that uncertainty and disruption are kept to a minimum.

Scuoler’s comments were made on release of the annual EEF/Aldermore Executive Survey, which indicates cautious optimism from manufacturers at the start of the new-year.

The report shows:

  • 37 per cent of manufacturers expect economic conditions in the UK to improve, down from 70 per cent last year – 17 per cent expect them to deteriorate (up from five per cent last year)  
  • Global outlook dims with 38 per cent expecting conditions to take a turn for the worse (compared to five per cent last year)
  • Despite this, almost seven in ten manufacturers (69 per cent) expect to improve productivity – 58 per cent expect to boost UK sales and 49 per cent to take on more permanent staff
  • The hotspots for export growth in 2015: North America, Asia and South America. The ‘not spots’: Europe and Middle East
  • Top cited risks to growth: rising input costs (45 per cent), significant shifts in exchange rates (35 per cent) and upward pressure on pay (29 per cent)
  • A focus on marketing, branding and launching new products – but 2015 is a year to consolidate, not speculate, say manufacturers, with riskier expansion activities way down on their list of priorities.

Scuoler concluded: ‘Recovery is by no means guaranteed and we would urge party leaders – and the next government of whatever shade – to remain focussed on delivering a fully balanced, stable economy where manufacturing is enabled to expand and grow.’