The UK is a large core market for 3D printing, one of the first 3 in EMEA, behind Germany. It’s just not clear what kind of market it is. Is it industrial or consumer-driven? Is it more of a design or a production AM market? When the UK was part of the European Union and more integrated within the continental economy, its role may have been different and these aspects may have been less relevant. But now that it is again a stand-alone nation it becomes more important to understand which are the specific drivers of UK additive manufacturing market growth. At 3dpbm we find this particularly interesting: whilst we are a digital and global media company we are based in the UK. This year we had to choose between two concurrent events, TCT 3Sixty in Birmingham and MECSPE in Parma (in Italy, where this particular 3dpbm writer is based most of the year).
It’s interesting how these two markets are similar and interconnected. Having attended MECSPE just a few months ago, this time we opted to attend the TCT 3Sixty show, looking to better understand the future of the local AM market. It was a great opportunity to meet several partners and friends face to face, in some cases for the first time and in other cases after almost three years of webcam meetings.
UK additive manufacturing innovation
Perhaps the single most interesting and innovative product to emerge from TCT 3Sixty was the new RD1-TT system for non-destructive testing via nonlinear acoustics, launched by Exeter-based Theta Technologies. Over the past few months, 3dpbm has had the opportunity to work with the Theta Technologies team to better understand the possibilities offered by this game-changing technology. The key message, as explained to us by R&D Manager Daniel Rodríguez Sanmartín, is that the speed, ease of use and low cost of nonlinear acoustics makes it possible to implement NDT at more stages throughout the AM development and production process, rapidly eliminating defects. This is of key importance as AM increasingly makes its way into production.
In terms of polymer AM hardware, the most important UK company is RAPLAS, emerging as a major contender in the rapidly growing large-format SLA market (see image at the top of the article), both in the UK and abroad. During TCT 3Sixty, 3dpbm had the opportunity to sit down with Vice President Sales Darrin Dickinson about the company’s plans to continue growing the domestic market and learn about plans to increasingly expand into the US market, with a local facility.
Another new AM hardware company to emerge in the UK is WAAM3D. The company co-founded by Filomeno Martina, UK-industry veteran Stewart Williams and Dr. Jialuo Ding, Principal Research Fellow in Additive Manufacturing at Cranfield University, presented the final, enclosed (and very stylish) latest version of its RoboWAAM, wire arc additive manufacturing machine, first commissioned in 2020.
Important local innovation comes from 4D Biomaterials, a company specializing in 3D printable bioresorbable polymer materials (PLA, PCL, etc.) to be used primarily in scaffolding for bioprinting. The company was sporting one of several BMF micro SLA machines at its booth.
BMF, a rapidly growing Chinese-American company was also present directly with a booth to show off its micro 3D printing technology (see images below) one of the most impressive things seen at TCT 3Sixty 2022. Carl Leonard, Applications Development Sales Engineer, explained that the company’s success is due to having no competition from other manufacturing processes: no formative or subtractive process can deliver the same level of precision. He also explained how the company’s DLP technology works by progressively reducing the projected layer image.
And whilst the UK is increasingly looking to focus on local manufacturing, Chinese companies will likely continue to be present in the production mix. In many cases, they are founded by students of UK universities who returned to China in order to obtain the funding necessary to start their businesses. Solo Additive is one of these companies and was present at TCT 3Sixty,. Dr. Xiaodong Song, the Founder, Chairman and General Manager of the company, graduated from the University of Liverpool. He created the company as a supplier of metal AM powders and metal PBF hardware, primarily to offer production services with its own technology.
UK additive manufacturing distribution
A key insight that emerged from TCT 3Sixty is that the UK, like Italy, is predominantly a distribution and adoption market for AM, with very few local hardware manufacturers. The largest among them, Renishaw, was not present, while other foreign AM hardware leaders like EOS, 3D Systems, Trumpf and Additive Industries were. To be fair, Additive Industries has just recently opened a major innovation center in Bristol so the company is becoming increasingly UK-centric, while the presence of Siemens Material Solutions and 3T (now owned by Italy’s BEAMIT) makes the UK a very important market for EOS as well.
That said, the UK remains predominantly a very large distribution market: the US-Israeli market-leading company Stratasys had a very large presence, both directly and via large distributors like Tri-Tech and Laserlines. HP and 3D Systems were also present directly or through local distributors such as Matsuura. In fact, Matsuura UK is a major distributor of several polymer AM brands, including HP, Markforged and ETEC (Desktop Metal). The company made highlights during TCT 3Sixty 2022 by formalizing a new distribution deal with Italian industrial filament extrusion AM hardware manufacturer Roboze.
Although the HP presence was not as large as Stratasys’, 3dpbm did have the opportunity to meet with Wayne Davey, the Head of Sales and Go-to-Market at HP 3D Printing Solutions, to learn how the company is focusing on the UK market and, more generally, on expanding digital manufacturing (more on this in the following days). On the other hand, Carbon, which many years ago had chosen the TCT show to present its first system outside the US, is now increasingly focused on developing the EU markets.
Another AM hardware company that has the UK at the top of its list for adoption is Czech Republic-based Prusa Research, which is rapidly emerging as the leading Western manufacturer of desktop/prosumer systems Prusa has recently released hard data to support this statement – one of very few companies to do so, along with Formlabs.
The leading low-cost laser SLA system manufacturer also had a strong direct presence to highlight the importance of the UK market for both its SLA and SLS platforms. The presence of Chinese low-cost 3D printer makers was very limited which would indicate that the UK is a relevant market for medium-priced systems.
One company benefiting from this trend is Evo 3D, a distributor of several medium-priced brands ranging from prosumer to entry-level industrial grade. These include important brands such as Turkey-based Loop 3D and Netherlands-based CEAD, as well as Modix, Creatbot and XYZ Printing (for SLS) – which are medium-priced Asian brands.
Caracol, a leading Italian company in robotic LFAM extrusion and a direct competitor to CEAD was also present directly with a booth looking to establish new retail channels. Ideally connecting CEAD and Caracol was London-based company Ai Build, which emerged as a robotic LFAM system manufacturer and now focuses exclusively on software to run multiple systems, partnering with manufacturers like CEAD and Caracol (but also standard extrusion AM hardware companies).
UK additive manufacturing adoption
Besides the well know Siemens Materials Solutions facility, many other polymer and metal AM service providers were present at the show, including Graphite, one of the UK pioneers in composite PBF 3D printing, LPE, a leading rapid prototyping and AM service provider based in Ireland, LCD Applied Technologies, Excel3D and others. Possibly the most relevant user of 3D printing in the UK today is 3DPRINTUK. This London-based PBF service provider has now achieved one of the highest – if not the highest – cost efficiency per part produced, delivering over a million small and intricate parts yearly via SLS and MJF machines.
Another emerging trend that attracted our attention at TCT3sixty is companies using AM for indirect manufacturing (3D printed tooling), which is in fact one of the most short-term opportunities in AM. This was limited to three companies in particular: voxeljet, Enable and forma, and UK-based custom casting and molding specialists.
Voxeljet has a very large facility in the UK for producing sand molds while Leicester-based Enable has fine-tuned design capabilities for Additive Casting leveraging voxeljet’s production. Likewise forma worked with local 3D printing design studio Techcraft 3D to develop custom 3D printed molds specifically for silicone parts production. In both cases, the main advantage is the ability to use 3D printing to produce larger batches of parts using widely using materials that are very difficult to 3D print. These include magnesium for Enable and silicone for forma.
This widespread adoption of 3D printing in the UK in some cases represents an effort to bring some manufacturing back to what has been the cradle of the industrial revolution in Europe. This could even be incentivized by the new stand-alone status of the UK. Several material manufacturers are looking at the UK AM adoption market with interest.
One of these is AM Polymers, a German company developing a range of different polymer powders for PBF beyond nylon, including PBT, PP and the only example of PET for SLS manufacturing. On the other hand, the former leader in industrial metal AM powder production, which has now become part of US-based Carpenter AM, was not present at the TCT 3Sixty, even though its main atomization facility is still based in the Liverpool area.
Several pre- and post-processing hardware manufacturers continue to show a strong interest for the UK market. Spain’s GPAInnova (makers of the DLyte systems) set up one of the larger booths to show its finishing capabilities. We also had the opportunity to meet with and speak with UK-based Russel Finex about high-quality sieving systems, as well as get a closer 3Devo’s systems for recycling used filaments and parts from extrusion 3D printing into new filament products.
Not every company active in the UK AM landscape was present at TCT3sixty however the main indication is that this is a market that is still looking for its identity, transitioning from industrial to high-end prosumer and now working its way back to higher-level industrial manufacturing. Judging purely by the participants at the AM-centric show is not enough. Perhaps the scenario for industrial AM adoption in the UK will become clearer at the Farnborough International Airshow next month.