UK businesses account for nearly half (42 percent) of all online 3D printing in Europe, with tech-focused SMEs the most likely to use the resource, according to a new survey released today by 3D Hubs — a Dutch company that specialises in online manufacturing services.
Over 60 percent of the 3D printing demand across Europe comes from engineers developing industrial, electrical, and medical goods, the “3D Printing Trends 2019” report, which tapped 3D Hubs’ own database along with a survey of 400 companies for details, found.
Computer Business Review fired some questions to 3D Hubs CEO & co-founder, Bram de Zwart to learn more about the most popular materials, the sectors adopting the technology most and, inevitably, the potential impact of Brexit on a booming industrial sub-sector…
How Does “Online” 3D Printing Work?
There are two ways to get something 3D printed: either you can buy a 3D printer and do it in-house, or you can outsource it to an external service. If you need high-quality parts in different materials or you don’t want to invest substantial resources, using external services is very appealing — especially for SMEs.
When outsourcing, again you have two options: either you can work with a “traditional” service bureau, or you can use an “online” 3D printing service, through a platform like ours. Using a traditional service, however, comes with certain frictions: you need to have many back and forth communications with the supplier since much of the pre-production work is done manually.
Online 3D printing services streamline the ordering process through software and reduce the time to production from weeks to minutes.
What are the Business Benefits of Online 3D Printing?
The engineers of a high-tech company — such as aerospace, medical, and automotive — will get excited about the design freedom that allows them to create highly optimized parts with organic shapes, reducing the weight and part count of their designs while increasing their performance.
Design engineers meanwhile — in fact, the majority of engineers today — see 3D printing as the most efficient way to manufacture their prototypes. The speed of design iterations is critical when you develop a new product. Also, unlike other manufacturing technologies, the minimum order quantity for 3D printing is one — ideal for prototyping.
Why Do You Think the Service is so Popular with SMEs?
They are less likely to have in-house, industrial-grade manufacturing capabilities and they are more flexible in adopting new solutions and technologies.
So, online 3D printing — and online manufacturing in general — is actually helping SMEs access production capacity that would be hard to reach in the past, allowing them to get to the market faster and therefore compete with larger organisations.
Why is 3D Printing Uptake (Whether Online or On-Premises) Not Faster Among Larger Companies?
We see that they have specific processes in place — legacy systems, lists of certified suppliers, legal requirements — that do not allow them to be as agile as SMEs.
3D printing is still a very new technology, and most large companies are still testing the waters. Through internal R&D, they are trying to understand the limitations of the technology and how they can assimilate it in their operations. When they figure this out, they will push the technology to their suppliers. We expect online services to play a vital role here, as the operational efficiency they offer are unique.
Why do You Think the UK is Outstripping Europe in terms of Uptake?
Manufacturing has always been the backbone of the British economy.
Advanced manufacturing, which includes 3D printing, has been the focus of significant investments and R&D from both the public and the private sector to enable the UK to compete internationally.
British universities, like Loughborough University and Nottingham University, also have a long history of research in 3D printing, and they were some of the first in the world to incorporate it into their curricula.
According to a recent study published by the European Commission, the UK is also ahead of other European countries when it comes to the adoption of online platforms in general. 3D printing and online services have been in the mind of engineers in the UK for many years already, and so it’s no surprise that they are such front-runners in using online 3D printing services.
What Role Does Brexit Play in your Findings (if Any)?
Brexit is very likely to influence the outsourcing behavior of UK companies.
We will see that production outsourcing will be done more domestically, which is where the value of comprehensive 3D printing networks for local online services becomes most apparent — businesses don’t need to think about import procedures from the EU or overseas.
What Materials are Available for 3D Printing? And Which Are Growing Most in Popularity?
3D printing plastics are either used for cost-effective, quick prototyping or — in some cases — for functional applications to replace machined or injection molded parts.
Composite materials — for example, nylon filled with carbon fibres — are rising in popularity, as they can be used to replace metal parts.
The main application we see today in metal 3D printing today comes mainly from the aerospace and medical industries. This is because of the very high cost of the current laser-based process compared to traditional manufacturing technologies. However, this is beginning to change now and we are very excited to see how the new technologies that are starting to hit the market will affect future trends in metal 3D printing.
We ultimately see the technology maturing and moving from prototyping and low-run-production (<100 parts) into manufacturing (>100 parts); this opens new possibilities for growth. It is very likely that 3D printing will eventually capture 1% to 5% of the $13 trillion global manufacturing market. This gives an enormous room for growth.