3D Printing – Tool or Toy?

As members of the Ingenuity network will know, one of our key aims is to make University of Nottingham research accessible to the local business community. Our latest breakfast event welcomed Dr Martin Baumers, Assistant Professor in Additive Manufacturing Management at Nottingham’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing.

Martin kick started the morning with a bit of background for the delegates, explaining that the technology behind 3D printing became available in 1986 and was brought to market by Chuck Hull, founder of 3D systems. The origins of 3D printing were in the manufacture of prototypes, where it became very successful, very quickly.

So what is 3D printing? Martin explained that 3D printing is a process which builds up components by adding raw materials in a computer controlled procedure, which is why the technology is also known as Additive Manufacturing. There are many different types of 3D printing technology which can process metals, plastics and other materials but all differ hugely in size, capabilities and costs.

As previously stated, 3D printing initially started off in prototyping. Originally the idea was to replace the manual process of making prototypes; the notion of using 3D printing for manufacturing came later in the 1990. This lead to what’s known in the sector as the “legacy of rapid prototyping”, describing some of the problems associated with using a technology that was developed for one thing for a different purpose.

Martin outlined the two main 3D printing technology types, powder bed infusion and directed energy deposition. Powder bed infusion is a process in which thermal energy fuses regions of a powder bed. Directed energy deposition is a process in which focused thermal energy is used to fuse materials by melting as they are being deposited.

Martin put these technology types into perspective by showing some product examples. We saw how very complex and intricate structures are achievable with 3D printing and examples of real-life components that are now in use, for example in aerospace applications.

So the question is, is 3D printing a tool or a toy? There’s a lot of hyperbole about 3D printing in the media, which can create the impression that it’s just a toy. However, Martin outlined that 3D printing is very flexible technology with many different applications, many of which are still undiscovered! It also offers significant commercial benefits over other manufacturing technologies, concluding that it is in fact a tool.

The two main advantages which are normally associated with 3D printing are, 3D printing processes are very good at efficiently building complex structures and parts. Secondly, 3D printing can be used efficiently to make small production series down to a single user, which is ideal for customised or bespoke products. On the other hand, there are of course disadvantages. There’s a limited palette of build materials and the use of non-standard materials produces extra cost. The process speed is slow and therefore increases indirect (time dependant) costs.

Martin kindly let us showcase a number of items which have been 3D printed in Nottingham’s Centre for Additive Manufacturing, which delegates enjoyed and said it really helped to show the many different applications of the technology.

Martin left the audience with 3 key points:

  • 3D printing is an exciting new manufacturing process
  • It can be highly innovative and deliver unprecedented value
  • It has a huge number of undiscovered applications, meaning it has great commercial promise

Delegates praised the session for being “a great introduction to the application of 3D printing” and “interesting to see the history of 3D printing”.

Our next breakfast event will take place on Tuesday 11th June 2019 with Dr Sam Tang and Alex Wilkinson, looking into the power of video to get your message heard. Don’t miss out, sign up here!