After much fanfare about the transformational change to manufacturing 3D, or additive, printing will make, it has been quietly making ground where it matters most, in industrial high-tech applications.
Why does this matter most? Surely, you might say, an area like consumer products would spur the greatest innovation and volume needed to bring down costs, and indeed it would, but only when the technology has matured to a point where the consumer products industry can find viable applications for it.
In time, Amazon will not send you a product, they will send you a software download to your printer and you’ll make the product at home, but to arrive at that point the technology needs to develop further and for that government and big business need to invest.
Government, I hear the capitalist republicans (including many in our own office) among you say, what has government got to do with it? Private enterprise is the source of all innovation and creation, right?
Wrong: government, in the US as much as anywhere else in the world, has been the source of nearly all blue sky research, investment in science and development that firms like Apple, Google and others have gone on to develop into mega-enterprises on the back of, and the same could well be the case for 3D printing.
In the UK, the government announced last week they would invest £154 million ($260 million) into new technologies such as 3D printing of aircraft parts. Four research projects were mentioned, almost a third of the money will go towards research led by UK engineering group GKN on the use of 3D printing to make lightweight metallic parts for aircraft, according to the FT.
Earlier this year, the British government announced it was creating a national center for 3D printing to support the aerospace, automotive and medical industries, due to open next year. A further £42 million ($71 million) will also be provided for Airbus-led research on designing, manufacturing and assembling wings, a technology the UK is particularly adept in. While a further £20 million ($34 million) will go into jet engines, an area where 3D printing has already made in-roads, especially with GE in the US.
In fact, GE is running about 300 3D printers and Boeing is said to have printed over 22,000 parts as of last year. As with several other technologies, the 787 Dreamliner is the platform for many new developments, the aircraft is said to have some 30 3D printed parts incorporated into every plane.
For industry, the cost of the printers is less of an issue than the time taken to create a part, the time taken by the printer to build up the finished component. As industrial R&D drives innovation in this area the rest of the market will benefit from the developments achieved. If a little government money helps drive that process along, then our position is it’s money well spent.