The UK needs to speed its adoption of AM tech to compete globally

Unless they adopt additive manufacturing (AM) by 2025, British companies will not be winners in the global high-value manufacturing race. This is a strong statement, and one that provoked fascinating debate at the TCT Show in Birmingham in late 2017, where Additive Manufacturing UK chose to launch its national strategy for AM.

Additive Manufacturing UK is an independent partnership of private companies and academic institutions, backed by the UK Government, set-up in 2014 with the aim of establishing the UK as a world leader in AM.

Additive Manufacturing UK’s chairman, Paul Unwin, says: “The UK currently only captures a 5% share of a worldwide market that was worth £3.59 billion in 2015. As this global market grows, it is vital that the UK gains ground. With this technology at a point where it can really take off, the opportunities for commercial gain are out there. It is estimated that the UK can win up to 8%, or £5 billion, of this rapidly growing global market, forecast to reach £69 billion by 2025. This will have a strong affect on protecting existing jobs – 60,000 by 2020 – while also generating new employment.”

Despite the exciting potential and progress to date, Additive Manufacturing UK claims thatmany UK companies, especially small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), lack the awareness, resources or confidence to apply AM as an integral part of their manufacturing toolkit. A recent global survey conducted by Ernst and Young showed that only 17% of UK companies have any experience with AM, compared with 37% in Germany and 24% in China.

Additive Manufacturing UK believes that unless this situation is rectified, these companies will fall behind their global competition, and could risk going out of business altogether. At its strategy launch, the organisation brought together a panel of experts to debate the issue and provide advice on how UK companies should proceed.

One key message to arise from the discussion was that companies should not rush headlong into AM. The design director of bureau Digits2Widgets, Jonathan Rowley, says: “The danger is that people think ‘if I do not get into this, I am going to go out of business’. Then they panic. They either bury their heads in the sand, or they start making some very rash investments. One of the big secrets in this industry is the amount of very expensive second-hand AM equipment there is on the market as a result. I would urge everyone to calm down, take an objective view of this and see how it applies to you.”

Rather, a company must have clear strategy in mind when adopting AM. Phil Reeves, Vice President of strategic consulting at Stratasys, says: “Do you want to grow your top line, or do you want to improve your bottom line? Do you want to bring innovative products to market that are new because of their functionality, or do you want to drive some waste out of the systems in your existing business? Then ask, where does AM add value? If it is top line growth is it because of personalisation, customisation, optimisation or weight reduction. If it is bottom line is it in the supply chain, on the shop floor, in jigs and fixtures—whatever it happens to be.

“Find the application first. Then find a material that is suitable for the application. Then find a machine that is able to process that material. Then you can do a bit of back-of-the-fag-packet maths to determine whether you can justify investing in this machine.”

Adopting AM does not necessarily mean that companies have to make massive investments. “It means that companies need to be aware of what AM is and what it can do for them. They can do something in-house, through a bureau or through their supply chain,” says Robin Wilson, a lead technologist at Innovate UK. “I do not think it means having to go out and buy an expensive machine. It is about awareness, it is about understanding what benefits it can bring, and then how it would make sense for a company to acquire the technology.”

Further, the panel believed that the adoption of AM should not be restricted to those in the high-value manufacturing sector. Rowley says: “If this country is truly to exploit this technology, it is not just the big guys who need to be applying it for high-value parts and letting it trickle down, there is something in this for everybody.”

For its part, Additive Manufacturing UK has identified learning and skills as a key area for improvement. Unwin says: “The skills base is crucial. We need to equip our designers and engineers across the spectrum with the skills they require to take AM forward in order to catch-up with the rest of the world and establish more UK businesses as major players in the global market.”

The organisation believes that the supply chain for AM in the UK needs to be improved. Unwin explains: “Until now, the supply chain process has been extremely frustrating. This is fundamental to the AM UK National Strategy. Although UK research and innovation in this technology is absolutely top flight, we have not had the supply chain, so many designers have found solutions abroad.”

Additive Manufacturing UK has identified the need to raise awareness among all firms in all sectors to the reality and potential of AM, as well as to dispel the myths and hype that surround AM technologies. It claims that if its strategy is not implemented, the UK will fall behind in the global race to exploit AM and will be unlikely to catch up later. The rapidly increasing maturity of AM technology means that now is the optimal time for the UK Government to make the strategic investment required — around £225 million.

As to whether that funding is forthcoming, or if the UK has the will to become a global leader in additive manufacturing technologies and application, remains to be seen.