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Friday, 25 July 2014

3D printing: a fad or the future?

In-Cumbria investigates how 3D printing is speeding up Cumbrian business.

TO the uninitiated, pressing a button on your printer to create your own 3D products in your home or office may sound just a little bit sci-fi. But 3D printing is rapidly becoming a mainstream activity and some Cumbrian companies are already reaping the benefits.

The basic principle involves spraying, or otherwise transferring, a substance in multiple layers onto a building surface, beginning with the bottom layer. Many are singing the praises of 3D printing, saving time and making prototyping a walk in the park.

The process is being deployed with good use by Maryport-based Forth Engineering, founded in 2000 by managing director Mark Telford, who clearly has a keen eye for cutting-edge technology.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mark left school at 16 and worked at Sellafield until he founded Forth, in order to put into practice some of his engineering ideas.

Forth has been working closely with the nuclear industry, and regularly uses 3D printing to produce prototypes, components and models for clients.

The process has caught the public eye over the last few years as the technology has become more refined, not to mention cheaper.

Mark Telford believes there are three main ways in which 3D printing has benefited his company.

“Firstly we use it for rapid prototyping. We can make a model of a new component very quickly, and spot minor adjustments that need to be made. It is very important for us in terms of trials and testing.

“The second main purpose would be to design and build models for customers, as having a visual aid is much better than a few years ago with just a description. It can be difficult for people to understand just a technical description of a product, where as a physical scaled down prototype of the model gives more of an insight into the finished product.”

“Thirdly we use 3D printing for making some components for equipment. Small components such as bearings don’t take much time at all to produce with one of these machines.”

The cost of setting up 3D printing has plummeted, resulting in many predicting that it will become a mainstream technology. However Mark said that setting up a 3D printing facility is still a costly venture.

“It is expensive to buy, with the full kit costing a minimum of £40,000. Making a cola-can-sized prototype object can cost around £70-£100, and takes about 7-8 hours. We would tend to arrange to have a stack of them ready to print off at the end of the day, then they are all ready by the morning.”

Forth has worked closely with Sellafield, and has used 3D printing to create many ROV vehicles.

However in large scale operations, the cost of manufacturing using 3D printing doesn’t reduce with numbers and would be too expensive to use for mass production.

Having used 3D printing for over a year and a half now, Mark realises that it is still a technology in its infancy, with a potential to impact our lives in a big way.

“The future of 3D printing will see machines producing things like metal components as well. Maybe in 10 years or more instead of going out to the shops we will just be able to download and print items instead, maybe even a set of clothes.

“It is state-of-the-art technology in its early stages that has a lot of potential, especially when you look consider how computers have developed over the last 30 years.”

The buzz around 3D Printing is gathering momentum, but some are sceptical about whether the UK is on the right track.

Cumbria-based entrepreneur Lyall Timmons has used 3D printing to aid the development of top-secret prototypes he is working on.

“Not a lot of people know much about 3D printing, there are no established industry standards so people don’t know how much to pay for it.

“I think it’s an early technology that has a long way to go and a lot of potential. I have used it abroad but not in the UK, as it is more expensive and there is less expertise and quality here.”

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