Additive manufacturing: cutting through the hype

3D printing has become the umbrella term for all manufacturing techniques where material is added rather than removed to form a shape.

Of all the technologies that form the basis of Industry 4.0, none has offered as much promise as additive manufacturing (AM). Unfortunately and maybe unsurprisingly given the hype, it has not yet lived up to its expectations.

Initial optimism and opportunity has been met by barriers, both technical and commercial, and a dose of realism for those that thought the ride was going to be a smooth one.

The technology has promised unlimited design freedom, lead time reduction, parts consolidation and parts performance benefits, to name a few.

However, the scale of use in providing real world solutions to problems, especially among SMEs, has not been of the order expected. Marketing hype around AM has not helped the cause.

An alternative approach is to visualise the different AM technologies as tools, much like current manufacturing processes, that have limitations as well as benefits and approach each problem individually.

AM might indeed be the solution but in many cases other technologies are far more effective.

The University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) North West is committed to working with Lancashire’s manufacturing SMEs to boost the adoption of AM.

The aim is to remain agnostic to technology type and supplier and ultimately use AM as a solution to solve manufacturing challenges.

AMRC North West has a broad range of AM equipment and ancillaries - from high-end metals to low cost polymer technology - that can be accessed by manufacturers through an ERDF programme set up to assist SMEs.

Case study 1: Working Smart

Leyland-based Smart-Grid Technology Solutions works on the development of technologies to help people with disabilities to be more independent.

It approached the AMRC North West team because it wanted to understand the different materials that could be printed using additive manufacturing technologies.

In particular, the business wanted help investigating the 3D printing of prototype flexible materials.

AMRC North West manufactured a number of different prototype designs from a flexible material, using Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing.

Smart-Grid received a cost analysis and an independent view on the advantages and disadvantages of using the technology.

The prototype parts demonstrated what could be achieved using the technology and allowed the company to create full assemblies of its aid devices.

Smart-Grid was then able to make a decision about whether to pursue SLA 3D printing as part of its prototyping process. The decision was de-risked by the information and example parts provided by AMRC North West.

Case Study 2: A developing idea

Hosokawa Micron is a leading innovator in powder processing technologies. With the design of a new product in development, the company had an idea that AM could benefit the NPI (new product introduction) process.

The business approached AMRC North West to help establish those benefits during both the design stage and the sales process.

The AMRC North West team manufactured a scaled assembly of the product using fused deposition modelling (FDM). It was then broken down to component level so each part could be examined and the inner workings of the mechanism demonstrated.

The assembly was used throughout the development phases and gave the engineers the ability to visualise the product and finalise the next steps.

It was also used at a number of trade shows as a sales tool when the actual product could not be transported or demonstrated.

Case Study 3: Making de-risked decisions

Skelmersdale-based Ace Composites is a glass reinforced products manufacturing company.

It wanted to determine if it could use polymer 3D printing technology to create moulds for use in the manufacture of composite components and to make prototype models. They would be used for visualisation and as sales and demonstrator tools.

AMRC North West manufactured a number of examples of the company’s existing parts using an industrial Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) type 3D printer.

They demonstrated the material and mechanical properties achievable using FDM additive manufacturing.

A supporting report detailed the manufacturing process steps, time requirement and costs so the company could compare AM with traditional manufacturing methods.

The AMRC North West work allowed the company to fully understand the costs, capabilities and opportunities and to make a de-risked decision about buying a 3D printer.

For further information and to discuss your manufacturing challenges contact Ian Brooks, Technical Fellow at AMRC North West on 07388 693636, 01254 947110 or at

  • For further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.