I met Neil Hopkinson at the entrance to the Mappin building, the home of Sheffield University’s department of Mechanical Engineering on a snowy spring day. As Professor of Manufacturing Engineering at Sheffield University he heads up a unique virtual team of eight colleagues including specialists in Polymers, Composites and Inkjet technologies who are examining the potential applications for industry of the ‘Holy Grail’ that is 3D and Additive printing!
Unlike some University mechanical engineering departments they believe that the most productive research emanates from the fusion of expertise from different disciplines; they embrace and practice this philosophy. Their research spans many different departments, disciplines and sectors often in projects that are inter-disciplinary in nature. And they also work across a wide range of technology readiness levels, from basic research which often involves expertise from the pure sciences, to applied research in close collaborations with industry. The department includes :
Research into Inkjet Printed Sensors, Laser processing of Biomaterial, Aerospace Designer Alloys for Selective Laser Melting , Process and Material development for High Speed Sintering and the Manufacture of parts for end users including F1 teams using Electron Beam Melting.
Additive manufacturing refers to the revolutionary range of processes that can create parts with impossible geometries. The Centre for Advanced Additive Manufacturing (AdAM) at The University of Sheffield conducts world leading research in the fast emerging field of Additive Manufacturing (aka 3D Printing). The AdAM team plays a key role in realising this potential by conducting research and development across a broad range of AM processes for collaborating organisations in Aerospace, automotive and healthcare industries. http://www.adamcentre.co.uk/
Neil is one of the great pioneers of advanced additive manufacturing in the UK and has a clear vision of where 3D and additive print technology will take us.
His vision is that 3D print will become more than ‘just a consumer fad’ as it becomes an embedded manufacturing technology that is part of the production line. This will occur when the economic viability of inserting a machine into that production line delivers real value in a mass producing business environment.
He has developed a formula that measures the point at which the value of producing a product using 3D or additive manufacturing outweighs the cost of machine and the investment. It’s a longtail graph but it demonstrates that with inkjet technology rather than the more frequently used ‘Sintering’ technique there is potential for a tenfold advantage in speed, and commercial viability.
As far back as 2001 Neil (controversially) predicted that technologies like laser sintering would be used to create products in series volumes of a few thousand. This prediction proved to be true for a wide range of products ranging from lamp shades to phone covers.
Over 10 years later, Neil’s view is that it will be the FMCG companies like Coca-Cola that will really exploit the possibilities with 3D. He has already many examples of shoes produced by AM, his room is full of soles of shoes, but it is the huge range of products that could be produced for the likes of Coca Cola and Nike that could make the difference.
Neil will be the key note speaker at the 3D Print Forum which is taking place at InPrint in the Hannover Messe 8-10th April 2014. We look forward to him sharing his experiences and vision with us at the event.