What is Britain’s place in the world of 3D printing?

The All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group held a roundtable debate earlier this summer on UK manufacturing’s competitiveness in the global 3D printing space.

HP’s George Brasher was part of the debate, and sets out what Britain must do to be ready for the future of industrial production.

Machine printing piece of plastic 3D printer 3d printing - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
3D printing is transforming the $12tn global manufacturing market and forever changing the way the world designs and produces – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

We are at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and manufacturing is on the verge of radical change.

Digital technology is transforming how we conceive, design, produce, distribute and consume almost everything – with enormous implications for entire
economies and industries.

During the roundtable debate, which was hosted by HP, Policy Connect and the All-Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group, one thing became clearer than ever before: 3D printing sits in the driver seat.

This disruptive technology is digitally transforming the $12tn global manufacturing market and forever changing the way the world designs and produces. But, what does the UK need to do to ensure we grab hold of this opportunity and lead from our own backyard?

Back to the future

3D printing – also known as digital production or additive manufacturing – is modernising the foundational benefits of industrial production for our hyperconnected, digitally driven world.

Before the industrial revolution, products were both designed and produced by artisans. They were made on a bespoke and on-demand basis, and for local consumption. Shoes were handcrafted by local cobblers, textiles were hand spun, and wheels were made by hand.

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The first two industrial revolutions, powered by steam and electricity respectively, changed all that. They separated out design from manufacturing, but the two functions remained geographically co-located.

The age of IT and the internet then digitally connected the world, eliminating the need for physical proximity between design, production and consumption. Our manufacturing paradigm became one of producing where costs are lowest, then transporting to where the demand was.

3D printing 3d printer machine during work process - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
3D printing is reclaiming the power of custom-crafting from the pre-industrial age, but applying it to today’s world at global scale – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

This has resulted in long, complex and rigid supply chains, which are not just costly, but inefficient at matching supply and demand.

It has required goods to be moved around the world with negative impact to the environment and it has placed great distance between manufacturing and the people that it serves.

The digital manufacturing revolution being led by 3D printing is reclaiming the power of custom-crafting from the pre-industrial age, but applying it to today’s world at global scale.

3D printing is the catalyst that’s moving us from one-size-fit-all mass production to a new world of mass-customisation that speeds design and production, accelerates innovation, lowers prices, creates more flexible supply chains, promotes sustainability, and reduces environmental impact.

The digital transformation being ushered in by 3D printing has already begun. For just one example, an Aerosports modelling and design customer will be using 3D Printing to produce more than 50,000 end-use parts per week using HP’s durable 3D High Reusability PA 12 material.

Britain’s early advantage

From a UK perspective, the parliamentary roundtable was a timely intervention, because at this early stage, Britain has the potential to be a global leader in digital production.

A study of 30 leading economies by HP and AT Kearney placed us among the top five countries worldwide in terms of readiness for 3D printing. The UK ranks second in Europe, behind only Germany.

Additionally, our competitiveness looks set to get better still: Britain boasts the world’s third fastest-growing 3D printing market.

Abstract business graph demand volatility growth fall - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Britain boasts the world’s third fastest-growing 3D printing market – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

However, we can’t get away from the fact that our manufacturing industry has been declining for many years. In the past decade, Britain has fallen from being the sixth to the eighth largest manufacturer in the world.

The HP and AT Kearney report puts us outside the world’s top ten nations for the digital production skills that will enable 3D printing to flourish.

Yet in my view, manufacturing remains in our DNA. The sector employs 2.6 million workers here in the UK, and still generates 10% of our GDP, and it is embedded in our educational institutions, research networks and specialised companies.

This is why I believe that 3D printing presents a one-off opportunity for Britain’s economy.

The policy agenda

If the UK is to seize this opportunity, government must play a crucial role in sustaining our competitive edge in digital production. Yet, as highlighted at the roundtable, its current Industrial Strategy contains just one brief reference to additive manufacturing.

In this context, the debate at Parliament explored how government can foster the conditions for digital production to thrive in Britain. Policymakers must focus their attention on three crucial pillars:

1. Adoption

There are three vital levers the government can use to help accelerate the growth of the country’s 3D printing market:

  • Playing the role of early adopter through its procurement policies
  • Supporting uptake of digital production technology among the small business sector
  • Eliminating customs duties and other trade barriers on 3D printers and the relevant materials.

2. Incentivisation

Government must also nurture the growth of a sustainable 3D ecosystem in Britain. This will mean encouraging investment in digital manufacturing capabilities through the use of grants and tax breaks.

3. Education

Finally, major investment will be needed from the government in two key areas:

  • University research aimed at advancing digital manufacturing technology
  • Educational programmes to train up a new digital workforce – many UK universities offer additive manufacturing courses, but there remains an urgent need to retrain today’s workers

Coming of age

The sector also has work to do if it is to truly realise additive manufacturing’s huge potential. There remains a perception in some circles that 3D printing is yet to reach industrial capability, but this is no longer the case.

Sulsa (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) – the World’s first fully 3D-printed aircraft was manufactured for the Royal Navy and designed to survive the harsh Antarctic environment. Despite its enhanced design, the use of 3D printing meant that it cost less than conventional drones – image courtesy of University of Southampton.
Sulsa (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) – the World’s first fully 3D-printed aircraft was manufactured for the Royal Navy and designed to survive the harsh Antarctic environment. Despite its enhanced design, the use of 3D printing meant that it cost less than conventional drones – image courtesy of University of Southampton.

Three-D technology has already begun to be employed for large-scale, customised production. For example, the Royal Navy turned to 3D printing to develop a drone that would work in the harsh Antarctic climate.

Drones made by traditional manufacturing methods weren’t durable enough for such extreme conditions. Remarkably, the Navy’s model is actually cheaper than those made by conventional means.

Meanwhile, FICEP Steel Surface Systems is exploiting digital production technology to improve the performance of steel used in buildings like The Shard in London.

The reality is that 3D printing is fast becoming the new model of industrial production. And Britain has a unique chance to steal a march in the global race to be ready for it.

But there is no room for complacency. The country’s additive manufacturing ecosystem needs to come together as a whole: not just government, but also designers, manufacturers, researchers, device-makers and educators.

We must all play our part in developing the 3D printing industry in the UK, and widening access to digital production technology and skills for businesses.

Our place in manufacturing’s digital future, and at the global table of global innovation, is at stake.