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3d Printing Opportunities

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In your view, is 3D printing the most important opportunity facing manufacturers in the UK?

3D printing is the process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of a material. In my view 3d printing is currently the most important opportunity facing UK manufacturers however, there are also many other exciting opportunities becoming available to the UK manufacturing industry. Previously 3D printing was simply an idea that had a lot of issues to resolve but now the machines have become more reliable and can be used to produce various products from a number of different materials including but not limited to plastic, metals, glass, concrete and chocolate. 3D printing is ideal for products that need low quantities producing or where high customisation is required (mass customization).

Now, instead of using the technology to make prototypes it can be used to produce the real thing quicker and probably cheaper than ever before. This significant cost reduction should help to reduce unit costs and improve competitiveness as well as reducing manufacturing waste by up to 90%, and with our strong heritage in engineering and materials science, the UK is definitely in the right place to take advantage of 3D printing which will not only encourage investment in to our economy from abroad but it should also revolutionise the way manufacturing is conducted in the UK making Britain a template for a changing world if executed effectively. Other countries who want to adopt this method of manufacturing that did not get there before us may also seek skilled individuals who can maintain and operate this machinery creating jobs. Two-thirds of the world’s 100 top manufacturers are now using 3D printing, a quickly increasing number.

Many of the larger leading manufacturers are hesitant for example some aerospace companies as safety is paramount during the manufacturing process however there are many successful examples in this industry such as British Aerospace (BAE), This company have used 3D printing as it allows them to execute precision and complex engineering at reduced costs but with tested results concluding that safety is not compromised. Successful examples from BAE include their ability to cut repair costs for the RAF, Just one part alone, a protective cover for the Tornado cockpit radio is made in a day for less than £100, meaning savings to date of £300,000 and a projected 4-year reduction in manufacturing costs of £1.2 million - a clear breakthrough for 3D printing, they have also just created and flown a 3D printed metal part for the first time on-board a Tornado fighter jet. Another company who also must have a strong focus on safety and are using 3D printing to manufacture is Ford Auto Company. The auto company has been using 3D printing since the 190’s and recently printed its 500,000th part, an engine cover for the new Ford Mustang. According to Ford’s website, traditional methods would take four months and $500,000, but with 3D printing the same process takes four days and $3000, an incredible improvement. 3D printing is also making a huge footprint in the medical industry, the dental and medical market for 3D printers is expected to expand by 365% to $867m (£523m) by 2025, according to analysts. While printing of complete organs for transplants may be decades away, the use of pieces of tissue for laboratory toxicology tests for cosmetics or drugs could be ready within five years, helping the medical market for 3D printers overtake all other sectors.

On the other hand the UK is not already a leader in 3D printing as other countries have invested heavily and there are plenty of other emerging technologies that may benefit the UK better than 3D technology if thoroughly considered such as nanotechnology or green energy which is certainly a very current issue internationally. Singapore for example over the next five years will be digging deep to develop the technology, injecting a total of £330.3 million into advanced manufacturing techniques in order to maintain its competitiveness.

3D printing could be seen as more of a threat than an opportunity as it enables complex components to be produced on-demand, a threat to engineering worldwide, as well as in the UK. It could possibly damage the stability of the British economy as many products can be produced at home, this is likely to make many people unemployed, and being replaced by machines for the sake of cost minimisation. This is then likely to lead to a reduction in public spending which could lead to the closing of many small and medium sized businesses that cannot withstand such a dramatic loss of revenue previously acquired by manufacturing or selling products that can now be made at home with a 3D printer for next to nothing after the cost of the printer and the materials required. The capital investment that the UK would have to find would also have to be substantial in order for the UK to become a world leader in this technology which in itself could damage the economy.

Overall I believe that if the UK was going to invest heavily in any emerging technology, 3D printing would certainly be one of the most financially beneficial. Unlike some of the other technologies that could be considered it enables businesses to minimise costs but remain productive.…...

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