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3D printing in the UK is a burgeoning industry right now

Businesses across the UK are in the midst of an exciting time for manufacturing, with the growing popularity and sophistication of 3D printing meaning companies of all sizes could soon be able to create innovative and bespoke products at the touch of a button.

How 3D printing works

The basic premise upon which all 3D printing technology is built is a fairly simple one - layers of material are built up in a specific pattern, based upon a pre-planned set of instructions, to the end result of a three-dimensional object being produced.

That said, the latest 3D printers make use of cutting-edge technologies to ensure they are able to create even the most complex of articles. The wide gamut of 3D printing options now available means the term 'additive manufacturing' can also be a broader definition of the technology.

Applications for 3D-printed items can be extremely varied, ranging from simple things like a spanner or pair of scissors, to extremely complex articles like prostheses for use in medicine or the latest aerospace parts.

The process invariably begins with the creation of a 3D model using a computer-aided design package or based upon a 3D scan/image of an existing item.

This information is then converted into a set of instructions for the 3D printer to ensure it knows exactly what to do to recreate the item perfectly - much in the same way technologies like industrial water cutters or precision lathes are able to cut out pieces.

A major difference between these technologies, however, lies in the fact that lathes and equipment like that whittle away at a material to deliver an end product, meaning there can be significant waste. In the case of 3D printing, the waste is minimal as articles are built up from nothing.

Big names in the UK

With the news that Canon Europe has now entered into a UK distribution agreement with leading industry player 3D Systems, the future looks bright for 3D printing opportunities for businesses across the nation.

Jeppe Frandsen, head of the production printing Group at Canon Europe, said: "At Canon, we're continually assessing new market opportunities where we believe we can make a difference to our customers. It's clear that, because of the potential business benefits it can deliver, 3D printing is one such opportunity."

However, it is not just Canon and 3D Systems that continue to make waves for UK firms in the realm of 3D design and manufacturing, with a host of other top names operating in the sector right now.

Depending upon the desired end product, 3D printing makes use of several different techniques and there are key players in every sector.

Stratasys and 3D Systems are two of the industries most well-established names, but other operators include Materialise, SLM Solutions, ExOne, Arcam and voxeljet.

All of the above offer a range of bespoke 3D printing options to their clientele.

Recent years have also seen considerable government support for the 3D printing industry in the UK, with almost £15 million invested in the development of new manufacturing solutions based around the technology since 2013.

In addition, the Technology Strategy Board has awarded several grants for projects to bolster the use of 3D printing solutions for businesses, with widespread collaboration to develop new equipment and techniques undertaken between industry and academia.

A positive global outlook

The UK does not operate in a vacuum though and the global market for 3D printing continues to also show positive signs of growth, with a recent report from business sector analyst Gartner predicting the number of worldwide 3D printer shipments is likely to more than double year-on-year between 2015 and 2018.

Overall, 108,151 worldwide shipments were recorded by the industry in 2014 and this figure is forecast to rise to 217,350 units in 2015. By the end of the forecast period, Gartner predicts the global 3D printing market will breach 2.3 million units shipped annually.

Speaking at the latest Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, research vice president Pete Basiliere argued that of the major technologies that make up the 3D printer market at present, it is material extrusion systems that are expected to be the key driver of growth.

Furthermore, the quantity and quality of 3D-printed goods for prototyping and full manufacturing is expected to grow considerably in the years ahead.

In terms of the cost of systems, Mr Basiliere said: "Manufacturers will strive to add features and improve performance in the first few years rather than reduce the prices of printers.

"Therefore, the average selling prices (ASPs) of a few technologies are expected to increase or to gradually decrease in the outer years after an increase in 2014 or 2015. Directed-energy deposition printers are the most highly priced, followed by powder bed fusion printers.

"The ASPs of material extrusion and vat photopolymerisation printers are expected to decrease as more and more players enter the market with offerings in the lower price bands within these two technologies."

Across the globe, 3D printing is therefore expected to be big business for the foreseeable future.