3D printing is here to stay

Materials World magazine
30 Apr 2017

Martyn Jones believes the recent acquisitions of 3D printing companies by global manufacturers can mean only one thing. 

There has been significant interest in recent years in the potentially disruptive technology colloquially known as 3D printing. Many high-profile companies have publicised their R&D activities, each claiming significant breakthroughs. A global supplier of production-grade additive manufacturing systems for 3D-printed electronics and metals, Optomec, USA, recently announced its Aerosol Jet Technology can enable 3D polymer and composite structures to be printed at the micrometre scale with embedded electronics. The energy sector of Siemens, Germany, has reportedly fully load tested a set of 3D-printed turbine blades which, when under full load, were travelling at over 1,600km/h, carrying 11 tonnes, surrounded by gas at 1,250°C and cooled by air at over 400°C. Rolls-Royce, UK, recently flew the largest ever 3D-printed structure – a front bearing housing in a Trent XWB-97k engine. The titanium structure measured 1.5m in diameter, was 0.5m-thick and contained 48 aerofoils. General Electric (GE), USA was the first gas turbine engine manufacturer to go into production of 3D-printed parts with the fuel nozzles used in the LEAP engine, which powers the Airbus A320neo, Boeing 737 Max and COMAC C919 aircraft types.

It seems to be a turbulent time in the 3D printing business, with numerous acquisitions in the last few months. For example, GE recently acquired a 76% stake in Arcam AB, a machine manufacturer headquartered in Sweden (see Materials World, January 2017, page 55), and a 75% stake in Concept Laser, a 3D printing systems producer based in Germany. Siemens has acquired a majority 85% stake in Materials Solutions, a UK-based 3D printing provider. Machine tool manufacturer DMG MORI, Germany, is strengthening its position in the additive manufacturing industry with a 50.1% acquisition of German 3D printing company Realizer, and powder producers are also being rounded up – one of the latest being Puris LLC, USA, by Carpenter Powder Products, USA.

While major players jostle for position in this emerging strategic market, significant investment has recently been announced with an aim to create a talent stream from primary schools through to universities and, ultimately, industry.

In the USA, GE is to invest US$10 million in additive manufacturing education over the next five years. US$8 million of this will fund colleges and universities to subsidise metallic printing systems, with the remaining US$2 million going to primary and secondary schools over two years to subsidise desktop polymer printers. The aim is simple, as stated by Vice President of GE Additive, Mohammad Ehteshami, ‘To build an ecosystem for additive manufacturing across multiple industries.’ This is the latest investment in the roughly US$1.5 billion GE has already devoted to manufacturing and additive technologies at its Global Research Centre.

In the UK, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has recently launched Manufacture using Advanced Powder Processes (MAPP), a £20m research hub, led by the University of Sheffield, and bringing together leading research teams from the Universities of Leeds, Manchester, Oxford, and Imperial College London, UK, together with a founding group of 17 industry partners and the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC). £10 million funding from EPSRC is being matched with over £7 million of financial support from industry and HVMC partners, and over £3 million from collaborating universities. 

MAPP aims to deliver low-energy, low-cost and low-waste high-value manufacturing routes and products, its website stating that it is ‘aimed at delivering advanced powder processing technologies through creation of new, connected, intelligent, cyber-physical manufacturing environments to achieve “right first time” product manufacture.’ 

The programme should cut though the hype that exists within the 3D printing industry by tackling some of the challenges faced today, hopefully making ‘plug-and-play’ a reality.

With such significant investment in schools and research institutions being backed globally by businesses, it seems the message could not be clearer – 3D printing will play an increasingly significant role in manufacturing in the future, so current and future engineers, scientists and technicians need to have the skill set to work in this rapidly growing area.

Martyn Jones is a member of the IOM3 Younger Members’ Committee. He is currently working for Rolls-Royce, UK in repair technology. He is reading for a part-time industrially-based PhD with the University of Sheffield, UK.