It’s almost 20-years ago that I first saw Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) machines being used to make components and parts that were more than just prototypes. They were also more than just casting patterns or short term tooling solutions. They were actual parts, including small electrical connectors and the shells of high-end personalized hearing-aids.
Over the intervening 20-years, we have seen these niche applications slowly growing to encompass high value, low volume applications in sectors such as aerospace and healthcare. But to be honest, AM/3DP is still primarily a niche technology. But why?
The reality is, for an application to work with AM/3DP; it has to be not only technically feasible but also economically viable. And for that to happen, the stars need to align correctly.
The problem is, we don’t always know how or when this alignment will happen. So what can we do to make it happen? Well, we can either wait for the stars to align naturally, or we can start to expand our understanding of physics, or start looking for new branches of astronomy.
In other words, we can wait for existing technology and materials vendors to launch a new product; in the hope, it enables our application. Or, we can develop the technology and materials to suit the applications – from the ground up.
The problem is, very few of the existing AM/3DP machine vendors have the capacity or infrastructure to engage in this special-purpose machine building. Moreover, very few materials vendors have the resources to focus their efforts on targeted materials formulation and characterization. And why should they? They already have R&D roadmaps to concentrate on without the distraction of individual customers wanting bespoke, application-centric technologies, and materials.
So where can companies go to get AM/3DP technologies and materials developed from the ground up?
Since 1994 I have been involved with several senior academics working within one of the world’s leading AM/3DP research groups at the University of Nottingham here in the UK. This group of around 100-people, excel in AM/3DP problem solving, building bespoke demonstration rigs, developing custom software tools, and formulating and characterizing highly specialized materials. From inkjet to open vat photopolymer systems to thermal laser and IR based systems for metals and polymer powers. These guys have developed solutions using no end of new and novel materials, from biological materials to multi-material systems used in optics, electronics, and healthcare. They have developed rapid screening techniques to find new monomers suited to a range of AM/3DP applications and have even developed jetting systems capable of printing metals up to 2000-degrees C.
About 5-years ago, with the blessing of the University, the academics formed the spin-out company Added Scientific Ltd, to make this capability and capacity accessible to both AM/3DP technology users and machine and materials vendors. What sets ASL apart is that it operates as a truly independent entity from the University, but has access to the university resources, infrastructure, and critically people. This allows ASL to be highly responsive to the technical and commercial needs of companies, without many of the IP ownership or commercial limitations of working solely with a university.
As I have got to know the commercial and technical teams within ASL, rather than just the founders, I have become slightly envious of the work they do. Solving actual AM/3DP application problems by developing new hardware, materials, and software solutions. As you would imagine, I, therefore, got rather excited to get a call earlier this summer asking me if I would join them on a part-time basis as commercial director.
So here we are, when I was trying to scale back my workload, I now have an additional role in life on top of my consulting portfolio. But that OK, as after 20-years I now think we might have a solution for getting AM/3DP into mainstream manufacturing.
Evolutionary biologists and schoolchildren might still be trying to decide which came first – the chicken or the egg – but in the world of AM/3DP, to me it’s clear. We have to stop trying to shoe-horn applications onto technologies and start developing technologies for applications. If you agree, let me know as I might know some folk who can help.
All Images courtesy of Added Scientific and the University of Nottingham