Since TCT show 2015 we seen launches of technologies from HP, Carbon, Xjet, EnvisionTEC’s SLCOM1, Massivit, to name just a few, as a user how exciting is this climate and how do you go about navigating the decision as to which technology to use?
Our current work is limited to SLM, SLA and SLS printing as our requirements are quite simple and cost dependent, but soon we will be looking at more complex materials and multi- material prints, so some of the new machines will certainly be of interest.
Medical has long been one of 3D printing’s most interesting applications, has the technology become an essential tool for surgeons?
It's not quite at that stage yet in all branches of medicine, though being used more and more in bespoke drill guides and dental work hopefully one day it will lead to bespoke tools direct to theatre but at the moment it seems that the greatest use of several types of printing is in rapid prototyping of new devices at drastically reduced costs and time frames.
Do you think hardware, software and materials for 3D printing are all at similar stages of development or is one area racing away in particular? Do you think the companies involved in those factors still need to collaborate more?
From our perspective, hardware can accurately produce all of our parts with remarkable precision often to a degree where design has to catch up due to pre-perceived expectations. This ties in with software as well, either in original design CAD or final component production programming; I'm sure it can get better, but right now hardware and software certainly seem to be very advanced. Materials are the main limitation for medical prototyping, but some of the newer materials certainly seem promising, and we should soon be able to use multiple materials that can be regulated and sterilised for medical applications.
Do you think the mainstream hype of years gone by has helped open doors at boardroom level?
I think it's worked both ways - anyone trying to take on 3D printing as a tool 4 or 5 years ago were probably a bit disappointed, there were still a lot of reliability issues with some of the smaller machines and it could well have led to a reversal of opinions. Anyone looking at the tech now is probably getting the timing right, from simple FDM to SLM there seems to have been sea-change in the last, say, 3 years and confidence in current devices is high. The example I can give dates back to some of the 3d printing shows a few years ago where manufacturers would have pre-printed examples next to their machines, but hardly anyone running them due to regular failures (or so it seemed) - now all the shows have machines running all of the time with very few failures.
What do you think is the rate-limiting step towards stopping companies using additive technologies for series production and can you see those rate limiters being lifted any time soon?
I used to think the answer to this was simple; mass production of the same part will always be quicker by moulding or casting, and medium production of bespoke items is great for printing. Now my view is slightly different - A new generation of designers will find a use for the technology that brings out its best qualities. We can already see the enormous cost reduction for prototyping quite complex devices and ironically there are tutorials showing you how to print short run mould tools, so I don't think we have necessarily found some of the greatest uses for additive manufacturing but I also think it won't be long before some innovative application ideas come to light.
Do you think we’re beginning to see a skills gap and do you think there’s enough being done to plug it?
I know of 2 engineering students about to start university that are both interested in AM as something to focus on, and they both happen to be young women - so if there is a skills gap, then it will get filled very quickly, and it's encouraging to see the gender gap in engineering looks like it might even out soon too.