22 Oct 2012
Funding competition designed to help UK become “a world leader in 3D printing”.
The UK government, through its Technology Strategy Board (TSB), is to invest £7 million in the development of “3D printing” – more correctly known as additive manufacturing (AM).
The emerging technology, which is expected by many to revolutionize manufacturing across a wide range of applications, can be used to make anything from chocolate bars to intricate components used in aerospace and medicine.
The TSB says that its ‘Inspiring New Design Freedoms in Additive Manufacturing’ competition, which opens on December 3, will be focused mainly on innovations to help businesses bring components and consumer items made using AM to market more quickly, and to help accelerate the adoption of AM technologies in the UK.
In reality, the technology relies on a collection of different manufacturing approaches, with optics and lasers featuring heavily in the use of methods such as laser sintering, selective laser melting, laser deposition, photopolymerization and stereolithography.
Not all of the approaches rely on photonics, however. Non-optical methods include polymer material extrusion, ultrasound and electron beam direct melting.
The UK has spent close to £96 million on the development of AM since 2007, with a recent TSB report highlighting that the vast majority of that money (£80 million) had been spent on research, with the remainder on technology transfer and business support.
However, the same report criticized the efforts made to commercialize research, as well as the lack of a strategic vision, saying: “The UK has a world-class AM research community, but it is not doing enough to either engage with the broader user community, or to drive innovation through to commercial exploitation within the UK technology supply chain.”
Unusually for an engineering topic, funding for the new competition comes from the budgets of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council, as well as the more typical backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – indicating the wide-ranging nature of AM.
Whereas previous funding has been aimed at core research efforts, it is hoped that an emphasis on technology transfer will enable a home-grown provider of AM equipment to emerge. At the moment, German and US companies including EOS (Electro Optical Systems), Concept Laser and Optomec dominate the capital equipment scene. UK-based Renishaw does sell a system for selective laser melting, but according to the TSB the company still has to license external intellectual property in order to do so.
In a statement announcing the competition, TSB chief executive Iain Gray said: “We are delighted that this important initiative is supported by three research councils. By working together to stimulate innovation in this exciting and challenging area, we aim to accelerate the transition from fundamental research to the creation of new design, production and supply chain competences, capitalizing on work we have previously funded.”
Gray added: “We want to make the UK a world leader in 3D printing. We are setting our sights high.”
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts added: “3D printing technologies offer huge potential for UK businesses to compete successfully by embracing radically different manufacturing techniques that could be applied across a wide variety of global market sectors, from aerospace to jewellery.”
“We believe this new investment will help UK companies make the step-change necessary to reach new markets and gain competitive advantage.”
The TSB’s report also highlighted a number of opportunities that the UK could begin to exploit within the AM supply chain. For example, it said that the country already has the “right kind of end users” in high-technology, and is a global leader in “design thinking and applications”.
“The UK also has the fundamental building blocks to develop a robust AM supply chain from machine and materials manufacture through to design, simulation and modeling software tools,” the report added, though it also pointed out that, with the exception of informal links resulting from funded projects, the sector remained highly fragmented, with no clear strategic direction or vision.
Specific strategic goals identified as crucial for future mass-market penetration of AM include an increase in material deposition rates of between four and ten times, larger and more flexible machine configurations, and in-process closed-loop control systems to reduce process variance.
The report concluded: “At this point, what the UK needs is a further structured engagement between the UK AM supply chain, end-users and the research base. It is necessary to engage with potential markets for products manufactured using AM.”