Expert Interview: Dr Martin Baumers of the University of Nottingham
06 February 2017
Dr Martin Baumers is Assistant Professor in Additive Manufacturing Management at the University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering. Martin’s research combines his background in economics with his longstanding interest in additive manufacturing and 3D printing, looking into the potential economic benefits this technology can offer. His most recent publication, in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, is titled “Shape Complexity and Process Energy Consumption in Electron Beam Melting: A Case of Something for Nothing in Additive Manufacturing?”
Martin was kind enough to sit down with RP Platform to discuss the current state of additive manufacturing technology, its applications in manufacturing, and how he sees the field developing in the near future.
RP Platform: How did your academic interest in additive manufacturing originally come about?
Martin: In 2004, I saw a documentary where someone was presenting stereolithography as an additive manufacturing process. Having already studied Economics, and being interested in exploring the economics of technology, I decided 3D printing would be the focus of my future research.
I apply a micro-economic perspective and toolset to technology. It’s all about making decisions at a personal or company level regarding 3D printing technology. I develop questions around that area, which then lead to questions of how we operate this technology in an efficient way. This, in turn, raises questions of build volume packing and scheduling and its successful implementation.
RP Platform: What are the key inefficiencies you most regularly see in AM operations?
Martin: I think the fundamental problem lies in a very simplistic understanding of the technology, as it’s portrayed in the media. There’s a perception that everything can be 3D printed, and that the process is always easy. These perceptions create a poor starting point for successfully implementing this technology. It’s a very attractive narrative, but the reality of 3D printing is much more complicated. We need to manage these expectations.
RP Platform: What areas would you suggest bureaus consider to begin reducing their production costing and build times?
Martin: The first thing is to achieve a position of realism towards the technology before looking to make changes or improvements. 3D printing is just one step in the manufacturing process, so to make it work from a business and efficiency point of view, the other steps in the sequence need to be considered as well. In my opinion, this is where the secret to successfully implementing this technology lies.
I would begin with the value proposition of the product. Start off with sensibly-defined functionality and then work backwards. If this means a new, innovative design that can only be realised through 3D printing, then it makes sense to implement the technology. If you start with the product in this way, then you’ll start appreciating the freedom, potential for innovation and possible supply chain revolutions you get from 3D printing.
RP Platform: In terms of the possibilities AM offers for sustainable development, what recent developments are you most interested in?
Martin: There are several reasons to believe that 3D printing can be more environmentally benign than other manufacturing processes. The questions I am most fascinated by are how that happens and how we can extract manufacturing functionality and value for the customer without incurring an environmental penalty.
3D printing technology is becoming faster, which means it uses less energy. However, when we talk about the environmental side of 3D printing, it is important to remember that the current technology is not designed for energy efficiency or environmental sustainability. For example, one of the most suitable additive manufacturing technologies for the manufacturing sector is polymeric laser sintering. Products produced in this way behave reliably and predictably, but the process produces large waste streams of degraded polymers, which isn’t good from a sustainability point of view.
There are some processes where waste material can already be recycled, but it is better to simply not create any waste material at all. Some platforms, such as metal-based ones, recycle almost 100% of their unused materials, but certain plastic ones are less effective in this regard, with the exception of filament extrusion processes. This will have to change in the next few years, as 3D printing moves from being used for prototyping to general manufacturing applications, but I am highly confident that this will be addressed.
RP Platform: How do you see cost reduction strategies in additive manufacturing evolving in the near future?
Martin: Compare polymeric laser sintering to the new Jet Fusion process, which is geared towards manufacturing rather than prototyping goals. This technology hasn’t been around for a long time, but aims to produce at a lower cost, be more reliable and require less post-processing. It is my opinion that we will see new additive processes like this that are more compatible with manufacturing.
RP Platform: What do you see as the next stage in 3D printing’s evolution?
Martin: I’ll give you two answers to that. The first is a technological one. We’re seeing new processes like the Jet Fusion process or the CLIP process, which is also more focused on manufacturing. We’re seeing more focus on manufacturing performance, volume, surface quality and reliability. I’m confident that we’ll see successful manufacturing platforms developing this way.
The other topic, which is something I’m especially interested in from a research perspective, is in complementary products and services. By this, I mean software solutions to problems with the technology, such as the transaction process and the orchestration and management of 3D printing facilities. 3D printing is 30 years old and is developing relatively slowly, because these complementary inputs need time to develop. You need the materials, you need supporting processes, and you need software to organise all of this. I think there’s a lot of innovation that needs to happen in that area and that this will be something quite interesting.
We would like to thank Martin for generously offering his time for this interview. More information about his work can be found here.