Suffolk businesses face up to the benefits of 3D printing

Examples of items that have produced through additive manufacturing at Ipswich Waterfront Innovation

Examples of items that have produced through additive manufacturing at Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre. PIC: Alan Cowie - Credit: Archant

Once the preserve of TV programmes like Tomorrow’s World, 3D printing is now increasingly being used commercially by design and manufacturing companies, including businesses from Suffolk.

Professor Phill Dickens from the University of Nottingham, who was guest speaker at the Innovate UK

Professor Phill Dickens from the University of Nottingham, who was guest speaker at the Innovate UK business breakfast event on 3D printing held a the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre. PIC: Alan Cowie - Credit: Archant

A number of these firms gave presentations about how they are using this burgeoning technology at an Innovate UK business breakfast event held at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre (IWIC) on Wednesday.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is more widely known, involves the making of complex three dimensional objects by adding layer upon layer of two-dimensional materials.

Guest speaker Professor Phill Dickens from the University of Nottingham spoke about the different types of additive manufacturing processes - some using powder materials, others involving plastic resins to create components.

“These processes have been used for rapid prototyping and are now being used more in manufacturing,” said Mr Dickens, who also heads up an additive manufacturing consultancy called Added Scientific, which was spun out of the University of Nottingham some years ago.

He said today’s lower costs for 3D printers - even budget supermarket Aldi is selling a 3D printer for less that £300 - is making the technology more accessible, while major US companies, such as HP and GE, are investing significantly in the sector.

Items such as dental crowns, in-ear hearing aids and jet engine fuel injectors are now commonly made using 3D printing, added Mr Dickens, who said that the cost of materials, the slow speed of the printing process and a lack of skills are factors currently limiting the uptake of the processes commercially.

Most Read

According to Jonathan Beadle at Radian Design, an industrial design consultancy based at Hitcham, near Ipswich, additive manufacturing is particularly effective in producing “bespoke designs on low and medium production runs” and for making “innovative products that can’t be made using traditional production methods” such as injection moulding and metal fabrication.

Managing director at Framlingham-based design business Minima, Dr Andrew McCulloch, said objects produced using 3D printing can be designed with internal cavities and voids to make them weigh less - bringing potential fuel savings to transport companies.

He said the extra complexity afforded by additive manufacturing could also help protect intellectual property as it makes copying items more difficult.

Head of IWIC, Paul Thomas said the centre continues to invest in increasingly sophisticated 3D printers and invited local companies to get in touch if they want to try out ideas before investing in the technology themselves.

“We want them to consider us the place where they can have a bit of a dabble,” added Mr Thomas.