UK must build on its additive excellence

The UK has something of a chequered history when it comes to capitalising on its technical expertise. From Frank Whittle’s work on the jet engine, to Alan Turing’s groundbreaking computer science research, our postwar history is littered with examples of missed opportunities to exploit the economic benefits of technical excellence.

And there are of course more recent examples: the worrying skills gap in the UK’s nuclear industry is, for instance, a result of lack of investment in a sector which we once led the world.

Meanwhile, a report out this week – published by Lancaster University’s Big Innovation Centre – claims that 3D printing, a field in which the UK is an acknowledged leader, could face a similar fate unless the government embraces a coherent framework for the continued development of the 3D printing sector.

3D printing – or additive manufacturing – refers to a suite of technologies that can be used to build up three-dimensional solid models layer by layer. The core concept has been around for some years, but whilst it has previously been used to produce prototype components, continued advances in equipment and materials mean that engineers are increasingly using additive techniques to produce functional components.

Additive techniques have considerable advantages over traditional manufacturing technologies. Able to build models of mind-boggling geometrical complexity from scratch, they dispense with tooling costs, create hardly any waste, and give designers the freedom to develop the kind of highly optimised, tailored components that simply cannot be produced using traditional processes.

The Lancaster University report – which calls on BIS to set up a 3D printing “task force” – argues that the sector could be very big business for the UK: creating jobs, producing more sustainable products, and ultimately enabling many of the products that we currently manufacture overseas to be produced in the UK.

In what appears to be a slightly far-fetched aside the report also warns that the rise of 3D printing should prompt government to look afresh at how it regulates the production and possession of dangerous items such as firearms. Strange as it may sound, this is not a baseless concern. Indeed, earlier this month 3D printing giant Stratasys confiscated one of its machines from a group of gun-loving US students who were planning to develop a fully-printable 3D gun.

It’s unlikely that 3D printing will ever entirely displace traditional manufacturing processes. For high production runs of big chunks of metal it will struggle to compete on cost and time. But for smaller runs of highly optimised components the technology is gaining ground fast, and the Big Innovation Centre report represents a timely wake-up call for an area of technology that could come to define British manufacturing as we move through the 21st Century.