An early adopter of additive manufacturing (AM) in the UK, Gordon Styles today runs a highly successful and growing service for rapid prototyping and low-volume manufacturing in China. Here, he offers his assessment of the progress of the 3D printing industry, with an emphasis on metal 3D printing and a geographic focus on China and the UK.
The 3D printing industry has grown exponentially in recent years both in terms of general awareness and industrial adoption for prototyping, tooling and production applications. Despite increased awareness, however, it is still striking that many people are surprised to learn that 3D printing actually dates back to the 1980s—the first 3D printing machine, which produced brittle parts using polymer resins, was invented in 1983.
It was not until around five years ago that the subject of 3D printing began to take the media by storm and it was around this time that we also witnessed significant advancements in 3D printing for both plastic and metal materials, and currently there are no signs of this progress slowing down. Indeed, by 2023, the 3D printing and AM industry is expected to be worth US$ 32.78 billion.
The expanding 3D printing world
As a result of its longer history, plastic 3D printing is perhaps more widespread and commonly used, but metal 3D printing is carving out its own unique position within manufacturing facilities across the globe. Metal 3D printing is, in my opinion, a revolutionary technology that produces previously impossible-to-make parts directly from 3D CAD data. Advantages of this additive process with metal materials include the ability to produce strong and complex geometries, internal lattice structures, conformal cooling channels and other features that cannot be made with traditional manufacturing machines or tools. The capabilities of additive processes mean that parts can be produced (relatively) quickly while also minimizing material waste. This in turn makes these processes ideal for innovative, next-generation engineering applications within notoriously challenging sectors, such as aerospace, medical, automotive, among others.
From my own experience working in manufacturing, it is no exaggeration to say that traditional subtractive manufacturing can be extremely wasteful. For some high-value applications, up to 90 percent of the material can be cut away to achieve the desired part. By contrast metal 3D printing offers a more sustainable approach as it uses fewer resources and allows for parts to be designed more efficiently. This process has been demonstrated to save billions of dollars a year, especially within the aviation sector. As the uptake of 3D printing continues to increase, metal 3D printing is specifically reducing development and manufacturing times for parts.
Across the globe and in many industries, 3D printing is becoming an everyday reality for almost one in four manufacturers. In a recent research study carried out by EY, it was found that approximately 24 percent of the companies it surveyed have already gained relevant experience using 3D printing and an additional 12 percent are considering adopting it. China and the UK are two examples of major markets seeing the most significant growth.
A regional look at 3D printing in China
3D printing and AM in China is continuing to demonstrate a trajectory of exponential growth thanks to manufacturers who are finding inexpensive ways to produce quality parts. Just this year, HP announced that it was expanding its 3D printing portfolio to include partnerships in China. UPS also jumped on the 3D printing bandwagon in 2016 by expanding its online 3D printing service into Asia and Europe. Moreover, China’s government has increased its support for the technology by providing funding to manufacturers using 3D technologies and enabling organizations to establish their own research and development teams.
One reason China has been able to distinguish itself and find success with metal 3D printing lies in the fact that the country has been able to produce metal powders at a significantly lower cost than other countries. In more general terms, Chinese organizations are also benefitting from the universal advantages of metal 3D printing, namely that engineers can choose from several available technologies, depending on the desired object being built. Different processes are suited to different end-use applications. For example, electron beam AM is often favored by aerospace manufacturers as it is ideal for producing large-scale, near net-shape parts with great strength. Selective laser melting (SLM) is also popular among both the aerospace and automotive industries in China because it is a process that makes highly complex, lightweight metal production parts. Both of these solutions require the use of various metal powders, including titanium, stainless steel, cobalt chrome and maraging steel. The low cost of China’s metal powders has led to a surge in requests from engineers who can benefit from the advantages of metal 3D printing without the associated exorbitant costs that can come with it in other parts of the world.
Embracing 3D printing in the UK
In the early days, the UK was very quick to take up 3D printing, although back then it was called rapid prototyping. This was mostly as a result of numerous universities receiving grants to fund educational projects and invest in additive machines. However, it was difficult for commercial companies to employ 3D printing technologies as there was a high cost for the machines and not enough government funding to go around. Eventually, private enterprise stepped in and today the UK holds a prominent place within the 3D printing landscape.
One sector of great promise is the field of medicine. British engineering company Renishaw has developed and commercialized an additive machine, the LaserPFM, which works perfectly for the dental industry to create semi-precious or non-precious crown and bridge frameworks. The machine develops crown molds where traditional CNC machining could not. Using metal 3D printing creates no internal stress on the mold and also creates less waste, proving to be an ideal tool in the dental industry. Another company in the UK is using 3D technologies for the production of lower-limb mobility devices to be used in developing countries and in areas where clinical partners aren’t widely available.
he UK’s motorsports industry is also tapping into the advantages of 3D printing. While using metal 3D printing for production parts has not been widely adopted yet, using the technology to create custom parts for motorsports has seen an uptick. Working with a Renishaw AM250 machine, I3D Concept has been able to create a one-of-a-kind piece for its motorsport bike and reduce the weight of the part by 40 percent. This is especially important when designing a vehicle that needs to move fast. These are just a couple of specific examples used to illustrate a proliferation of applications within the UK, where R&D is continuing apace.
Going global with 3D printing
While China and the UK have been among the quickest to adopt 3D printing, specifically metal 3D printing, many other countries are finding the technology beneficial in creating customizable products quickly and cost-effectively. This trend is expected to continue as technologies become more innovative and available and companies continue to find ways to use this technology.