Manufacturing the future

As the blast furnace at Teesside Cast Products prepares to flicker out – the UK government’s repeated assurances to put manufacturing at the heart of economic recovery have rarely looked less convincing.

While Tata, the Indian firm which owns the site, hasn’t ruled out finding a buyer, there’s a growing feeling that once extinguished, the last steel-making furnace on Teesside won’t be lit again.

But while the probable closure is a disaster for the 1600 workers set to lose their jobs, and a huge blow to the UK’s industrial heritage, it is not, as some are suggesting, further evidence of the slow death of UK manufacturing.

Indeed, according to a growing body of engineers, the UK is well placed to lead the world in the development and application of a range of so called “additive manufacturing” techniques that could one-day dispense with the sparks, noise and waste of traditional manufacturing processes and effectively enable engineers to print functional components from scratch.

Application of this vanguard of manufacturing technology is currently limited either to the production on one-off customised components in, for instance F1 design or low production runs of high value bespoke devices. It is, for instance, proving particularly helpful in the medical sphere – where surgeons are able to use additive techniques to produce joint replacements from digital scans.  What’s more, additive techniques open a new world of possibilities for the designer, who long constrained by the limitations of traditional machining processes, can now build anything they can think of.

Before we get too carried away – it’s worth remembering that the technologies are currently limited to producing small production runs of fairly small objects. And the components produced, though exceptionally strong – aren’t yet certified for use in structural applications.

But as the technology scales up, as the processes become more repeatable and the components produced win the trust of Engineers wedded to tried and tested traditional techniques – additive techniques could enter the manufacturing mainstream.

And while they’re not going to replace the mothballed Teeside plant any time soon, at the very least the technology does offer a glimpse of a positive and exciting future for UK manufacturing.