Luke Ambrose September 10, 2018

As a Sales Manager at Materialise UK, Luke Ambrose has had a front-row view of the evolution of 3D Printing in the UK over the past decade. In this guest post, Luke reflects on how the technology has changed and how UK companies are adapting their approaches towards it.

Back in 2006, when I was preparing for a job interview at Materialise, I did some research into this technology that I’d never heard of, called ‘3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM)’. The things that I remember about my early days at Materialise are that there were some established technologies in Stereolithography and Laser Sintering and we’d got this fairly new PolyJet machine that could also print a rubber-like material.

I started my career at Materialise in our manufacturing business unit. The use of the technologies by our clients back then was really just for Rapid Prototyping purposes, so marketing models, fit and form models or parts for functional testing. If low volume production was required, we usually looked at vacuum casting or aluminum tooling. The number of materials available was very limited and so was the number of explored applications.

Over the years many things have changed. The ones I find the most noticeable are the range of technologies and materials available, the number of AM machine OEMs and the evolving focus towards using the technologies as end-use production techniques. Materialise are pioneering and we demonstrated this in my early years by producing end-use parts with AM for the Materialise .MGX collection; high-end consumer goods like designer lamps and stools that were for sale to the general public. Back then the materials themselves were pretty brittle and were very sensitive to UV-rays so it was a test of our production skills to produce nice looking durable parts.

Luke Ambrose, Sales Manager at Materialise

Foldable stool from the MGX collection, designed by Patrick Jouin. Picture: Susan Smart

Now the big focus of many of our clients is on the production of end-use parts through Additive Manufacturing in both polymers and metallic materials. In the UK, we see large potential for the aerospace and high-end automotive markets which lend themselves to some of the key benefits of AM, like the economical production of low volumes and big wins from weight savings.

 

From Hype to Reality Checks

I think that in the UK we’ve moved on from the hype that everyone was going to be 3D printing everything. Desk-top printers entered the market at lower price points, but this did not mean that we now all have our own printers at home. It set a few false expectations for people, but it also had some positive impacts. It definitely helped to raise awareness of 3D Printing in the general public and I think that this also helped to make leading executives within organizations consider the benefits that 3D Printing can bring.

Without expert guidance, it can be a bit of a minefield for newcomers. Where do I start? Which technology should I look at? There is no machine, technology or material that is the best for all applications. What applications should we look at? And does this depend on what the technologies are capable of? Are my parts suitable for end-use production? Should we re-design the parts for Additive Manufacturing and how should we do that? Once we’ve designed the part for AM, how to develop an efficient production facility or should we establish a distributed supply chain? The number of questions is almost endless.

This is where Materialise can really add value to clients — we’ve been living and breathing the technologies since 1990. If we’re in contact with clients at an early stage, we can advise on all this, from helping to identify which family of existing parts would benefit from being produced with AM, and helping to re-design parts to take advantage of the design freedom of the technologies, right through to establishing efficient AM production facilities in validated environments. We’ve done it all before ourselves. We’ve even made some applications like customized hearing aids economically viable by developing an automated software solution.

Customized hearing aid. A project in collaboration with Phonak.

Lack of design for AM knowledge is often cited as one of the main barriers to AM adoption. The way designers used to design products needs to change drastically for Additive Manufacturing. I think that within five years’ time, this will vastly improve as it is being more widely taught to students at universities. Over half of the primary and secondary schools in the UK operate 3D printers. However, we are currently seeing a bit of a lag in these students reaching the workforce. When these AM savvy graduates do hit industry, they will also still be in a learning phase, so to stay ahead of the competition organizations that are serious about harnessing the benefits of AM need to educate their experienced conventional design community ASAP. We are member of the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, because we want to share our AM knowledge and educate the market.

 

Printing In-House vs Printing with Service Bureaus

There are no one-size fits all approach, but quite often we see that clients start off by outsourcing some projects to our 3D printing factory because they don’t have the critical mass to justify investment in a particular technology. They use our 3D printing factory to get access to the best technology for their current projects. Once engineers start using 3D Printing, the word seems to spread fast and it gets used more and more. At a certain point, it becomes a viable business case to bring 3D printing technologies in-house. Often we see that this tends to be for a limited number of technologies or materials and clients still use us for other technologies, other materials or to get a large project completed on time.

We also work with our clients that invest in their own technologies to help them get the most out of their investment. We do this in a variety of ways from helping to educate their design community in how to design for Additive Manufacturing through to making the most of their assets with the help of our software suite. With the growth of metal powder bed additive manufacturing systems, the average selling price of 3D printer has actually increased in recent years (even with all the desktop printers sold) making it even more important to maximize efficiency with the help of software automation and minimizing scrap rates.

Metal bracket with organic topology, perfectly designed for AM.

We place a lot of focus on how we can help our metal powder bed clients to minimize scrap rates and maximize machine time with the help of pre-build simulation in our Magics software. The software helps people preparing builds to be able to quickly check whether a part is optimally oriented and supported, hence reducing the cost of multiple iterations that may otherwise be required to successfully build a part.

We are very happy that formnext puts focus on design and supports the UK to grow in this emerging and promising technology. I look forward to meeting my customers and industry peers at this exciting event! Please come and see us on Hall 3 booth C48 to discover how we can empower your 3D printing applications.

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