Originally, this piece was going to start with a convoluted allegory comparing the trains vs. planes debate to additive manufacturing vs. traditional manufacturing one. It surmised that though the flight time to Brussels was shorter than the train journey, the added land travel, checking in and security procedures meant taking the Eurostar to Brussels was the quicker and cheaper option. The first draft compared the added faff surrounding air travel to that of the post-processing and preparing of the machine in AM technologies that mean despite its perceived speed 3D printing is still a slow process.
This was written, smugly, on the way into Brussels for the Additive Manufacturing European Conference, the return journey involving striking Ferry workers blockading the Channel Tunnel in Calais meant this allegory was no longer applicable, especially seeing as I ended up on an Ryanair flight out of Charleroi 24 hours after my train was due to leave.
The metaphor also proved inaccurate for the manufacturing side, as the gathered members of the industry explained how 3D printing is rapidly changing from a prototyping technology to a fully operational manufacturing tool across a host of applications from consumer goods to aerospace. The problem facing Europe is not the technology itself but do our business understand this shift in ability of our technologies?
If it’s good enough for tooling…
The conference, organised by CECIMO - the European Association of the Machine Tool Industries, brought together some of 3D printing’s finest minds including Stratasys’ Andy Middleton, SLM Solutions’ Stefan Ritt as well as members of the European Parliament and leaders of the manufacturing industry. The aim was to leverage the years of manufacturing experience an organisation like CECIMO has and to see how applicable that was in order to help European businesses adopt additive technologies.
"Europe is in dire need of new economic dynamism.” Stated Reinhard Bütikofer, Member of the European Parliament. “Additive manufacturing offers great potential for disruptive innovation. It can boost industrial competitiveness and, at the same time, deliver significant material and energy efficiency gains. We need an ambitious EU industrial policy that taps into new technologies and industrial trends to promote competitiveness and sustainability”.
This comment was imbued with a sentiment that was felt throughout the day’s proceedings; that there was a need for Europe to get its backside into gear when it comes to helping businesses adopt 3D technologies, Roland Berger’s Bernhard Langefeld summed that feeling up:
"From 2004 to 2010 the AM industry showed a significant growth of around 20%, from 2010 onwards it was more like 40%," said the Strategy Consultant. “Europe has a leading role in AM but competition from Asia and US is arising rapidly."
Andy Middleton, President, Stratasys EMEA followed those remarks up with his insight into why he felt the EU is being left behind by its intercontinental cousins: "Without significant investment in education Europe cannot compete with the US and Asia. My kids, who are 10 and 14, print their own parts; phone cases etc. They won't win any prizes for design but they are beginning to understand the technology.”
3D printing has, in the past, been heralded as the technology to bring back manufacturing powers to the west but with the Chinese government announcing recently that by the end of 2016 it plans to have at least one 3D printer in each of its 400,000 primary schools, those ideals may seem now seem a little far-fetched and education, not just in children, became the salient thought throughout the think tank.
Clare Marett, Head of Manufacturing and business Investment at Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that UK SMEs have a lot of trepidation when it comes to additive manufacturing. She suggested that of the businesses she had visited, who may well benefit from 3D printing, most felt that the technology was a passing fad and one they were not prepared to invest a significant of capital or time. A feeling that exasperated SLM Solutions’ Stefan Ritt, whose company’s machines are producing certified metal parts for aircraft and Andy Middleton, who said that 50% of the business Stratasys do in Germany is with the automotive industry.
A time for strategy
It was becoming ever clear throughout the day that Europe was in need of some direction from the top down in order to keep up with the fine tradition of manufacturing the union was built on. Fortunately, a conference like this is exactly geared towards setting a platform to move us forward; there were strong calls for the EU to adopt a “European strategy for Additive Manufacturing”.
It would appear from the post show happening that this is now taking shape; Clara de la Torre, Director for Key Enabling Technologies, at DG Research of the European Commission, commented after the event: “Only in the 7th Framework Programme (2007-2013), €160 million in EU funding was granted to more than 60 successful projects on additive manufacturing technologies. In the first year of the Horizon 2020 Programme, in 2014, nine AM projects and actions were selected to benefit from more than €17 million in EU funding.”
Filip Geerts, CECIMO Director General stated: “Additive Manufacturing is moving fast towards becoming a mainstream technology. However there are challenges and obstacles on the way to its industrialisation that should be cleared and to that end, adequate government policy must play a role in technology development and market uptake. With the know-how, skilled workforce and resources, Europe has the potential of becoming a global centre of excellence in AM. Europe does not have the luxury to lag behind competitors in disruptive technologies that transform the economy. It has to aim at global leadership. We hope that the new EU Industrial Policy Roadmap and the Digital Single Market Strategy will give the necessary attention to AM”.