GTMA “Designing and making stuff quickly”

From Dr Alan Arthur

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Additive manufacturing has seen a rise in popularity due to Covid-19. How and why was 3D printing so useful and how can it be used beyond the pandemic.

Metal printed parts for engineering applications
Metal printed parts for engineering applications
(Source: GTMA)

This article highlights the effectiveness of an integrated UK-based manufacturing supply chain delivering an agile resilient base, specifically identifying effectiveness in responding to medical requirements during the Covid-19 pandemic, 85 % of the manufacturing requirements were fulfilled by the GTMA supply chain companies.

The surge in 3D printing in response to the Covid-19 epidemic helped protect us through production of face shields and ventilator components. As the manufacturing industry refocuses many of the products are now into mass production through moulding and other more traditional machining processes where volumes and output speeds can be upscaled. This period has shown the value of having 3D printing (additive manufacture) as part of an integrated manufacturing strategy. This is a complementary technology which is still evolving. The UK manufacturing sector has met the initial challenge presented by the pandemic and the lessons need to inform decision making going forwards.

Additive Manufacturing is used in every part of our lives, from edible items through to face masks and toys onto complex scientific equipment. Often, we do not know how something is made but this technology is all around us in what we use, where we live, and how we travel. The technology is automated and ideally suited to the modern world requirement for ‘cross-industry-technology-transfer’.

3D printing as a stand-alone technology

3D printing is the automated process of making things layer-by-layer. In the early days of the technology, over 25 years ago, this was used to make prototypes (or models) to allow engineers to develop shape and function of parts and test them in wind tunnels and through customer reviews. As the technology processes and materials have developed this has become a commonplace technology for manufacturing parts and tools. Additive components are present in everything from washing machines and vacuum cleaners to trains, cars, jet engines, and satellites.


Recent growth in the area of 3D printing is exponential and although it is a fantastic tool its real value comes through integration with other more established manufacturing processes to deliver flexible strategies to make quicker with greater value-added. There are over 500 companies across the UK using this technology, and this is expanding rapidly. Bringing the technology users and other manufacturers together will give the UK the required agile manufacturing base it needs.

Additive manufacture allows freedom of design, engineers can create features that would not normally be possible by other ‘subtractive’ manufacturing methods. Sub-assemblies can be created as single parts reducing part count and assembly operations. Because material is being ‘deposited’ this is an efficient use of the material, in conventional machining a large volume of material is being removed and wasted — consuming time, energy, and cost. It is also possible to deposit more than one grade or type of material simultaneously which can add significant properties to the part or tool. In creating tooling, additive manufacturing can impart complex conformal cooling which improves efficiency of the moulding or forming process by cooling or heating the tool locally. Make what you want where you want it — additive manufacturing shortens the geographic supply chain offering fast production locally.

3D printing as a complementary technology — an integrated manufacturing strategy

Response to the demand for products to fight Covid-19 has been met by a collective activity but learning from this we can adopt a better strategy moving forwards. A more effective UK-based manufacturing supply chain is in everyone’s best interest.

Much is being made of Industry 4.0, a 4th industrial revolution based on data-driven processes with minimum manual intervention. Choose whatever catchphrase you think fits, the key to better/agile/resilient manufacturing in the UK is better integration combined with an ability of manufacturers to explore a wider range of sectors. This broader vision and alliance with other UK based manufacturers will deliver turnkey solutions for Clients in the home and export markets able to grow and shrink output to meet fluctuations in demand.

There are suggestions from designers that an ‘additive digital twin’ approach can offer a route to develop and produce products in parallel to speed up the process of new product launch and provide the verification of the product ready for mass manufacture. A ‘digital twin’ is a virtual product that can look and feel like the real thing, quick to make through additive processes and easy to evolve the design whilst the hard tooling and manufacturing process for full production are underway with a much higher degree of confidence. You know what you are going to get before you get it.


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