Given the recent excitement in the US about the $85 million in funding heading towards Youngstown, Ohio and the newly-established National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII), one of the questions I hoped to have answered at the recent 3D Printshow in London was, "is there anything like that happening in Europe"?
The answer: yes, but not quite on that scale. I met up with Sophie Jones, from Econolyst (a UK consulting firm with its fingers in several 3D printing pies - one of which is "Willit?," a cloud-based WebGL application that lets web users interrogate design files prior to printing to assess the cost, quality and carbon footprint of 3D printing with various materials). She is in charge of research for a new "UK National Centre for Additive Manufacturing Research Pavilion" being set up in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Loughborough University and the University of Nottingham. The centre's goal is to "showcase the UK's research capabilities and promote engagement with industry," proclaims its website.
"What we've found is there's a massive amount of technology transfer in the States: They're really good at getting academic work pairing it up with industry and coming up with something commercially-viable. In the UK, maybe we're not as great at that," says Jones.
"The aim of the national centre is to allow industry to pair up with researchers and enable that technology transfer," she adds. Partly this will be through a travelling 'pavilion' that goes round and enables people to interact. A bigger part of the story will be a web portal - www.3dp-research - that is currently in development. "It's not up and running yet, but it will be in the next few weeks," says Jones. "What that will be is a way of helping industry engage with research by letting them see what research [people] are engaged in, what facilities they've got, how they fund it - things like that." A secondary goal is to be an-to-date and accurate source of information about 3D printing.
"We've got three groups we want to target," explains Jones. "Industry, researchers - we want to provide a place where they can upload their papers, their links, and look for jobs and scholarships - and also the general public. Whether we produce our own content or use other people's is still to be decided, but it will all be peer-reviewed - so, YouTube videos, things that people can use in lectures and students can use as a learning resource."
Unlike NAMII, the idea is not to have a fixed research centre: "Ours is just a metaphorical research pavilion. It's more about bringing people together," says Jones. And, as in the US, the political visibility of 3D printing is rising as the technology becomes more mainstream. "David Cameron said only last month that it was one of the five emerging technologies he wanted the UK to invest in," she notes. "There has been £6 million EPSRC funding for Nottingham, which is fantastic. I think we will see [greater financial support]. We won't see it on the scale of the U.S., but then we are not the scale of the US. I probably should point out in terms of research we are on a par with the U.S., easily, we are ahead of Germany: Our research output is phenomenal, and that's why we want to link it up, to make sure that we see the economic benefits of investing in all this research," Jones adds.
The possibility of working with the people at NAMII is also a cause for excitement in the UK: "The potential for links with that will be incredible," she concludes.
At the opposite end of the scale, a young 3D designer has created a hub of his own on London's Brick Lane "opposite the bagel shop - so everyone knows where it is," helpfully explains Nick Allen, the founder of MAK-3D (pronounced "maked"), which he believes is "the world's first 3D printing co-working office."
Allen says he "set out to give 3D designers in London a specific place to work at; there wasn't anything like that. Now I've got a couple of guys in and it's kind of evolved into: 'You don't pay for a desk anymore; you get a free desk in exchange for working for me'." The young entrepreneur also runs a company called 3dprintuk, which turns customer's ideas into 3D printed models - anything from a replacement knob for a radiogram to architectural models. "Hopefully we'll be able to get some investment for an SLS machine and then get myself a UK version of Shapeways, that's what I'm looking for. That's the end goal, but it's not competition with Shapeways; it's a slightly different version of [what they do]," promises Allen.
In the meantime, the MAK-3D office, which has been up-and-running since August, now houses three other people. "I ask for 10 hours a month - about 2 hours a week - CAD work from my tenants and in return I actually get paid by my clients for the work they do," explains Allen. Not only does this mean the rent gets paid, it also means that, "Instead of outsourcing and waiting two weeks for someone to say, 'Yes I can do it,' and then waiting another two weeks for them to do it, I can shout across the room, 'Can you do it?,' and then an hour later it's done and it's back on the desk," he adds.
A further benefit is the fact that, "not only do I get paid for that CAD work, I also get the 3D printing job that the guy wanted in the first place because I've got him the CAD model straight away - so it piggybacks," says Allen.
An additional "piggyback" is another business running out of the same office, called Brikstarter. "[It's] a full kickstarting platform," says Allen. "If you've got an idea, but no idea how to design it, develop it, prototype it, market it, do the video, anything, and you don't have the money, you come to us." With a range of available equipment that includes an (unspecified) 3D scanner, Canon 7D digital camera and Objet 3D printer, the Brikstarter team does the entire project, "tens of thousands of pounds' worth of work," for "a minimal set-up fee - a couple of hundred quid (pounds), 10% of the pledge and a 10% non-executive stake in the product at the end of it."
As for 3D printing, says Allen: "The technology's here, it's awesome, let's do something with it."