A year ago the Department of Education published an important report on 3D printers in schools and their potential uses in the curriculum. The aim was to find out whether this technology offered new opportunities for the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Improvements in this area are important in terms of increasing the flow of talented young people into professions which will underpin the future competitiveness of the UK.

21 schools were helped to buy the relevant equipment. The feedback from the exploration was that this technology has significant potential as a teaching resource and can have a substantial impact on pupil engagement. Many of the schools involved commented on how motivated pupils became using the printer. As a result of this study important changes have just come into operation in the national curriculum.

Ultimaker UK, a SME based in Chorley, Lancashire, have responded to these developments by setting up the CREATE Education Project which uses a 3D printer designed and made in Holland. This is based on an acronym strategy:

  • Community – with accessible hubs and regional and national competitions collaborative learning will be a keynote of the programme.
  • Reliability and Support – the programme provides service managers to support schools and guarantee a high level of equipment availability.
  • Education – the programme is aimed at ‘pushing the envelope’ in learning and development, driving the curriculum forward in the UK and Ireland.
  • Access – 50 schools have been selected to acquire an Ultimaker 3D printer at a discounted rate to provide a regional network of hubs to make things easier as the community expands. Free open source software from Cura is available for the Ultimaker 3D printer and the Youimagine.com website provides an international platform to access 3D ideas and aid learning.
  • Teachability – the design approach within the programme encourages experimentation which can be easily shared with others.
  • Economics – it is perfectly feasible for parent-teacher groups to set a fundraising goal to rapidly acquire the necessary equipment.

This will all help the UK keep pace with Germany and the US where the widespread use of this technology has been promoted through the Fablab Movement (a series purpose built digital fabrication and rapid prototyping workspaces).

In London’s Tech City the first 3D printing café has just opened and in the City itself, the Mercer’s Company, have helped establish Fablab London – a 4000 sq ft creative space with digital fabrication tools and education workshops. This facility opened in September and is located alongside Bathtub 2 Boardroom offering support to early stage startups. The idea is that many financial services employees will be interested in using these facilities to develop their careers in a new direction.

iStock_000035889950XXXLargeUniversity College London’s Institute of Making has established the MakeSpace workshop available to all students and staff with a public programme involving masterclasses and maker residencies. This facility brings together equipment and expertise from a wide range of disciplines encouraging users to engage in the craft, design, technology, history, philosophy, art and engineering of making.

With this sudden rush of activity, it is surprising that the New Scientist first wrote about additive manufacturing in the early seventies. Nonetheless, this is the year that Lego have confirmed that it is working on a strategy for the digital toy age whereby customers may be able to use the technology to make their own bricks and figures.

These developments don’t only impact on the UK’s manufacturing sector. The UK’s rapidly expanding business services sector is now as large as the manufacturing sector in terms of value added. Leading firms in this sector have been developing their capability to support customers on this rapidly changing scene. For example, Econolyst is a UK consultancy which is world leading in its capabilities based on twenty years’ experience of additive manufacturing.

Another example is Bird and Bird, one of Europe’s largest firms specialising in the legal dimensions of information technology and headquartered in London. They have identified several strategic issues in this field and have been commended by the FT for their work on the IPR strategy for a crowdfunded 3D printing pen.

Bird and Bird judge that one of the most important impacts is likely to be on product liability legislation given the change in supply chains that this technology will bring. They report that the US is planning a total revamp of their legal framework in this area stimulated, no doubt, by global leaders such as 3D Systems based in the US. Such changes would have major implications for the insurance sector, which is a big overseas earner for the UK.

Bird and Bird suggest that the commercial use of 3D printing is most advanced in IT, electronics, aviation, automotive and healthcare but there are important implications for distribution and retail. All sectors are likely to feel the impact of the technology’s dramatic impact on time and cost compression in product development. The net result may well be a substantial increase in total innovation in advanced economies where prototyping work is already a big segment in the emerging 3D printing services market.

iStock_000039287072MediumA number of different viewpoints have opened up on how the future will develop. One good source is the 40 page report, Impact of the Maker Movement, published by Deloittes, based on the Maker Impact Summit held at the end of 2013. This study concludes that new links are being forged between creativity and production, resources and markets which will bring big changes to many major institutions in advanced economies. A good counterbalance to this is the Manufacturing Futures Lab Lecture on Additive Manufacturing given by Professor Phil Dickens of Nottingham University at Imperial College London last year. Professor Dickens started work on additive manufacturing in 1990 and was a professor at Loughborough for 11 years.

The strength of the UK higher education sector in additive manufacturing research needs to be more widely recognised, especially the capabilities that have been developed through EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences research Council) support for innovative manufacturing. The leading role of the aerospace supply chain in developing additive manufacturing has also helped the UK. While the US is probably ahead of Europe, within Europe it is still an open question whether the UK or Germany is in the lead. It is worth noting that 3D Systems has established its European headquarters in the UK.

A good example of industry/higher education collaboration in the UK aerospace sector is the 1.2m titanium wingspar that was 3D printed in just 37 hours at Cranfield University last year. The design file was created by BAE engineers in Lancashire and rendered in Cranfield using Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing. The goal is to take this technology and make it operational so that it meets the demanding standards that apply to the aerospace supply chain.

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