How the use of 3D printing can benefit manufacturing in Wales and what are the limitations.

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Sam Minshell, Research Officer, MADE Cymru

3D printing has been very helpful in producing protective face shields and masks for the NHS at this crucial time. Businesses, educational institutions and the general public that own 3D printers, have come together to increase supply for the demand and costs have been relatively cheap, but how can this technology benefit manufacturing in Wales in the long term? Here are ways 3D printing can be utilised in Welsh manufacturing and what the limitations are.

Market Competitiveness
When producing a new product, one of the most important factors is getting the product to market first, 3D printing allows rapid prototyping to be performed, it is a very fast way of getting a design from concept to prototype. The process can be used to produce parts or tools, jigs and fixtures required to manufacture parts. The current pandemic has had a major effect on the global supply chain, long lead times slowed or completely halted production. Utilising 3D printing can provide immediate solutions, with the potential to improve the existing products or manufacturing processes, whilst minimising waste. As well as saving time, cost savings can be made on materials, supplier mark-up and import/export charges.

Arcam 3D Printer

Advanced Engineering
Structures that are lightweight and strong can be produced through 3D printing resulting in high quality parts. Topology optimisation can be performed using engineering software to remove material from a parts structure whilst optimising strength and performance, when combined with 3D printing this can result in a faster design process. It may not be possible to produce these structures using traditional manufacturing techniques due to the complex geometry. Topology optimisation used with 3D printing is a powerful combination currently being used in the aerospace, automotive and medical industries.

BMW have been using 3D printing since 1990 and in 2018 surpassed one million 3D printed automotive components. BMW recently replaced a CNC machined Aluminium fixture with a 3D printed ABS thermoplastic design, reducing lead time by 92% and cost by 58%. Source https://www.javelin-tech.com/3d/3d-printing-jigs-fixtures-bmw/. BMW have also used topology optimisation to produce a lightweight 3D printed metal roof bracket for the i8 Roadster, with an overall weight saving of 44%. Source https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/bmw-receives-altair-enlighten-award-for-metal-3d-printed-roof-bracket-138080/

Limitations
There are some important considerations to make when deciding if 3D printing is a suitable manufacturing solution. Due to the nature of the additive process, the range of materials are limited, especially metals. 3D printing is not usually used for mass production as large scale production is generally slower in comparison to injection moulding or casting and the cost is static, meaning that there is no saving per item if mass producing with 3D printing. There is a size restriction, even the larger 3D printers tend to have a bed size less than 0.5 metres and thermal stresses between layers may also need to be considered in larger parts. Depending on the application, 3D parts may still require post processing, for example machining to remove support structures, surface finishing to remove roughness, priming and painting.

MADE is a suite of EU-funded projects delivered by University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) through its Centre for Advanced Batch Manufacture (CBM), tailor-made for Welsh SMEs and individuals to plug into the power of disruptive technologies, in order to boost productivity.

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