Imperial poised to play leading role in future of 3D printing


A 3D printed part

A 3D printed part

Merging molecular science and engineering could help overcome current challenges in 3D printing to make it faster, cheaper and more consistent.

This is the conclusion of a new briefing paper produced by the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering (IMSE) at Imperial College London and launched today (30 November 2017) at the Invention Rooms, White City Campus.

The paper – ‘The value of additive manufacturing: future opportunities’ – outlines how merging the fundamental research of molecular science with the more end-of-use-focussed discipline of engineering could help propel the 3D printing industry into its next stage of development.

“The ability to create complex 3D objects, without the need for specific tooling, has paved the way for the rapid development of AM.” says Dr Billy Wu, co-author of the paper and Lecturer at the Dyson School of Design Engineering. “3D printing is becoming an increasingly important manufacturing technique for medical, aerospace and motorsport applications.”

Additive manufacturing (AM), popularly known as 3D printing, has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. The global AM market was worth $0.4 billion in 1996, grew to $6 billion in 2016 and is predicted to be worth more than $26 billion by 2022.


Imperial researchers are experimenting with 3D printing to design new components

Imperial researchers are experimenting with 3D printing to design new components

However, the uptake of AM technologies in many other industries is still limited by barriers such as the high cost of AM machines and materials, as well as lengthy overall 3D-printing processes.


In addition, there are still fundamental technological challenges that need to be addressed before AM can be more widely adopted. For instance, the industry needs better design software, more consistency in quality assurance practices, better intellectual property protection and more suitably trained personnel.

The authors of the paper cite Imperial’s culture of multidisciplinary research, as well as its strong links with industry, which make it well-placed to tackle these challenges.

Dr Connor Myant, co-author of the paper and Lecturer at the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial, said: “From developing technologies, to modelling and the creation of optimisation techniques, AM research at Imperial is far-reaching. Imperial’s research spans various applications in fields such as medicine, biology, chemistry, robotics, materials and design, which allows us to be at the forefront of this burgeoning industry.”

According to the paper, the use of the molecular science and engineering approach can also help overcome some of the challenges and allow more-effective translation of research into industrial applications.

Dr Shoshana Weider, co-author of the paper and IMSE Communications Manager, added: “By bringing researchers, from a host of disciplines, together with other stakeholders we aim to provide fertile ground for stimulating innovation.”

Imperial research

Some of the ongoing AM-based research at Imperial highlighted in the paper includes the development of multifunctional AM lattice structures that could ultimately be used in large civil engineering projects. The aim is to fabricate devices such as pipes and cables that have other features built into them such as being able to double up as a conduit for electronics.

Imperial researchers are also investigating ways of improving how metals are used in the 3D printing process. For example, Imperial researchers are looking into ways of optimising printed components through a better understanding of the structural complexity at the molecular scale.

Another team is exploring how to reduce the cost of 3D printing metal components. At present, a technique known as direct metal laser sintering is the most common method for 3D printing of metals, but this expensive approach often produces parts with substantial defects. The Imperial researchers are developing a low-cost electrochemical AM printing method that does not involve the use of lasers that can be used to produce large-scale, high-quality multi-material parts.

The future

Looking to the future, the authors suggest several ways for external partners interested in AM to engage with Imperial researchers. These include workshops focused on industry AM problems, bespoke consultancy services, the funding of specific research projects and the provision of student placements.

The preparation and publication of the briefing paper, ‘The value of additive manufacturing: future opportunities’ was supported by Higher Education Innovation Funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.


This article was written by Franca Davenport


Colin Smith

Colin Smith
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