Wednesday, 3 December 2014

My latest obsession: 3D printing

My latest engineering obsession is Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing. I am initially looking at whether it's feasible to print spare equipment parts for offshore installations. Would it be possible, one day, to have a 3D printer offshore and not stock any spare parts? Would this reduce space and weight requirements for installations? Is it possible to 3D print a pipe off the back of a pipe lay vessel as it goes along, rather than manufacturing the pipe in a construction yard and spooling it onto a reel to put on the boat? What else can we do with this technology? I know we're not quite there right now, but I believe we are only limited by our imaginations here. It's important to explore these avenues and ask these questions.

I recently attended the Hinton lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering; it was presented by Admiral Sir George Zambellas who is essentially the boss of the British Navy. He spoke about 'Engineering a 21st Century Navy for a 21st Century Nation'. I asked him at the end if the Navy has considered 3D printing and his response was something along the lines of 'I could do an entire other lecture just on 3D printing!' 

It's encouraging to hear what other industries are doing with this technology, and I learned more at a conference in London last week which brought together professionals in this industry to explore how to translate additive manufacturing from small scale into industrial applications. The range of applications was staggering; tennis racquet grommets, dental implants, filters, bendable electronics, fuel nozzles, shoes and concrete structures. One application I particularly liked was using lunar soil for a 3D printed moon base (! Using the soil already on the moon means less weight to carry up there; apparently it costs about £200,000 for every kilogram you want to send to the moon!

A few other interesting points to note: 3D printing will not replace traditional manufacturing; it is simply another tool for the designer’s kit. There is no point 3D printing everything for the sake of it, we should be using it to print things that are not possible to manufacture with existing methods. There is currently little standardisation in this industry, BSI (British Standards Institution) are on the case and will hopefully start to provide standards for machinery and materials as the technology develops. There are lots of unanswered questions when it comes to Intellectual Property, for example, can you print out a spare part for a machine you own if you are not the original equipment manufacturer? Finally, this is yet another engineering area facing a skills shortage.

In a less technical and more social context, 3D printing will play a large role in the evolution of consumerism. I think (and hope) we are moving away from the mass production culture, where you see a product someone else has and you want it, onto a phase of individualism where your product is unique, useful, efficient and defining of your personality.