AM, or industrial 3D printing, is employed across many manufacturing sectors in a variety of materials, from polymers to metals, producing everything from simple tools to major parts for aero engines.
A variety of companies, such as 3T Additive Manufacturing and Stratasys offer on the job training, and universities, such as the Universities of Central Lancashire, Brighton, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Derby and Bucks New University (BNU) offer modules on 3D printing and additive manufacturing as part of their engineering degree courses.
Dr Tim Coole, a manufacturing engineer who works with universities including BNU, says that these modules are fitted in either to product design, CAD design, or one of the other programmes. He says: “They can be more than just a single module, but they tend to be part of the wider degree rather than a programme developed as its own thing.”
AM, he says, is now part of the process of making and engineering products, and is now seen as a mainstay within the manufacturing field, rather than simply a rapid prototyping technology. Coole adds: “Even organisations like Space X use additive manufacturing as part of its design and build process.”
AM has been around for more than 30 years and, though it is still a relatively young technology, it is maturing rapidly and is at a stage where tolerances are within acceptable standards for many industries.
“It’s a layer technology at the moment and, no matter how fine you make those layers, you’re going to get a stair-stepping effect within the process. So, you won’t get a perfect build,” Coole explains. “But now layer depths have gone down to around 0.1mm, that’s probably within tolerance levels that some industries can accept.
“The ideal scenario is you’d have an additive manufacturing system that builds parts out of steel or aluminium, with a machining cycle alongside to finish off and to produce the final component to the required grading standard.”
Side effects of a maturing technology include more people being required to learn the process inside out, more job roles created and the need to fill them with suitably-skilled engineers. This lack of education and skilled people is seen as a major bottleneck that could stifle the further adoption of AM across industry. That’s where the Manufacturing Technology Centre sees the role of its apprenticeship, recently accredited by the Specialist Awarding Organisation for Engineering and Manufacturing (EAL).
The MTC’s head of future skills, Martin Dury, says: “The course is a four-year programme, delivered as a Level 3 advanced manufacturing apprenticeship, and will cover topics such as operating an additive manufacturing machine and carrying out post-processing of AM components.”
In addition to engineering principles such as maths, science, hand-fitting, milling and turning, the first year of the programme will consist of full-time learning at the MTC’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre in Coventry, or at Oxfordshire Advanced Skills training centre in Abingdon.
WHAT THEY DO
“Year one specifically focuses on the benefits, and hands-on practical training on rapid prototyping with polymers,” Dury continues. “This provides the learner with experience of taking their design of a part through to the processing of 3D CAD models and actual manufacture. This is delivered at a point in the programme where they can directly compare this with conventional subtractive methods, such as milling.”
In year two, the programme will deliver the detailed theory of all the different processes and materials available, and focus on more industrial methods, going into great detail about the use of powder bed fusion (using both polymers and metals). It will also cover handling and storing powders and common post-processing methods.
Years three and four will then provide guidance and coaching on material handling, machine operation/component manufacture and the post-processing of the product.
Dury says the apprenticeship will be launched in September 2022.
Coole is complimentary. He says: “I think this apprenticeship will encourage and improve the use of AM. The more people use it, the more knowledge they have about the system, the better the output and the more likely it is to be used within the engineering and the manufacturing fields. The advantage of using this technology is that we can get to a finished product much quicker, we can do testing, processing and analysis on products much quicker and better, because we can get to the end-game sooner.”
CHOICE OF TECHNIQUES
The maturity of AM technology varies depending on the choice of method and material used. While the MTC’s programme is claimed to provide knowledge of all the methods and materials available, it focuses on providing detailed learning on the skills associated with only the more mature industrial processes, ensuring the learner will be able to apply the knowledge and skills in the workplace.
As the MTC is the home of the National Centre for Additive Manufacturing, Dury says the MTC understands the industrial adoption levels of this technology and provides insight on which technology to focus on.
He explains: “As the knowledge, skills and behaviours required by an additive technician were mapped to Level 3 and were similar to those of a current engineering technician standard, it made sense to embed industrial additive manufacturing learning modules to this existing standard, rather than going through the unnecessary time and effort to create a new standard.”
The result being, employers and training providers can simply choose additive units within this engineering technician standard to benefit from the learning associated with this technology.
Coole says that apprentices will benefit from the in-depth nature of the learning. “Generally speaking, when it’s added into another programme, it will be one module which you’ll go through, and you only learn the basics; you don’t learn all the intricacies that go along with it.”
The MTC says it will provide a process- and device-agnostic programme, due to its access to a broad range of manufacturing equipment and material plus expertise in post-processing, testing and quality, that will align to any business need.