Comment on: 3D printing can be a real source for optimism

An item in the FT by Wolfgang Münchau June 14 2020

It is not only 3D printing but a set of easy to access local manufacturing technologies that will have considerable impact. Laser cutters, CNC mills and open source design software to name a few others.

In the recent activities at Makespace in Cambridge UK, volunteers were able to prototype a process in 3 days and manufacture over 5,000 visors. The team then shifted focus to make other types of PPE which were then handed off to larger scale producers to deliver in large volumes.

Many factors came together to make it work, not the least of which were the enthusiastic volunteers who put in long hours. Another key component was the ready availability of relatively inexpensive manufacturing equipment which allowed many quick iterations during development and optimization. The laser cutter was the tool of choice, inexpensive and easy to operate with standard materials sourced locally.

Wolfgang Münchau is right to point out that we may be underestimating the value of investing in these types of technologies and moreover the people who know how to make the most of them. He is correct to be optimistic.

More about the Makespace COVID19 response here:

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 In reply to Ward Hills by ‘eng’:

Would be interesting to see a statistical comparison of 3D printing and 2D CNC/Laser cutting. 2D fabrication techniques usually require discretizing the design into 2D parts, and re-assembling them into 3D form. That re-assembly process is tedious and usually requires a lot of unskilled labor. 3D Printing can bypass all of that.A dialog showing a permalink to the commentA popover with more user information

In reply to ‘eng’

That is a very good question to ask.  In the case of the PPE/visors need for the COVID response 3D structures were not required.

At Makespace materials for a visor could be cut and the visor assembled in a few minutes (2-5min.) by volunteers with no experience in producing medical products. In contrast, 3D Printing just the frame to hold the visor would have taken 30-50 minutes at best on a high-end consumer printer. Then it would still have had to be assembled and subjected to QA/QC. No savings in assembly or quality control, but huge difference in the preparation time, ca 10x or more.

The critical process where these decentralised manufacturing approaches can yield extraordinary benefit is in the low cost of iteration and optimisation in process development. In this particular case, the critical steps of the manufacturing process were in the reproduceable assembly of different materials into the visor. Efficiently making those parts from various materials was the rate limiting step. Being able to make small changes to the cutting and shaping processes at a rate faster than the assembly and QC process allowed the team to make the most of limited time.

Once the process was tested and documented it was handed off to large scale manufacturers who used die cutting, which was even faster than laser cutting. I am told they scaled to making 250,000 PPE visors a week.

The 3D printer filament material is also specialised and thus in limited availability and more expensive. Only if the part being made is of a single material and the production increased 10x could 3D printing hope to compete on performance. Cost and supply chain issues might still persist. Nonetheless 3D printing remains one of many very useful tools,

The most important thing, in my opinion, is that we invest in not only the technology but also the people who understand both systems and tools. From what I see in the engineers and designers working in makerspaces we have a great deal about which to be optimistic.

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