In this article, Loxley Graham and Sophie Pontoppidan (Alexander Daniels Global) consider the role that Additive Manufacturing (AM) has to play in the Midlands recapturing its former status as a global industrial capital.
The article explores the presence of AM across the region and outlines a vision for how the technology could benefit the pre-existing manufacturing landscape.
Birmingham, the heart of the Midlands, has been described as “the first manufacturing town in the world” as far back as 1791, and quickly earned a reputation as a city of multiple trades. From brewing to textiles, ceramics, automobiles, and jewellery: the Midlands is a true powerhouse of production.
This, in turn, over centuries has given rise to various factories and innovative manufacturing plants throughout the entirety of the Midlands, with some of the most iconic brands – such as, Jaguar Land Rover, Alstom, Bombardier, JCB, National Grid, Rolls Royce, Toyota UK and beyond – utilising cutting-edge engineering processes to produce goods enjoyed all around the globe. A recent report revealed that the Midlands region now accounts for 14.6% (£222bn) of annual contribution in GVA to the UK economy – this figure having grown by 30% in the last decade.
In recent years, manufacturing value chains have been disrupted following Brexit and even more recently, COVID-19, with a new supply chain impact study revealing that 85% of global supply chains faced a reduction in operations during the pandemic while 6% shut down operations altogether.
For multi-nationals in particular, a multitude of new tariff calculations and other regulatory hurdles, some of which could substantially alter the cost and logistics of existing supply chains have sprung up on the back of Brexit – the long-term effects of which have been further masked by the drop in supply and demand of goods and services throughout the pandemic.
Considering this, it brings forth a need to reclaim manufacturing in the UK – and particularly in the Midlands.
But this is not the first mention of additive manufacturing that the Midlands will have heard. With manufacturing still the life force of the region, and especially Birmingham. 3D printing technology has been revolutionising the production landscape for brands such as Jaguar Land Rover, Cooksongold and Hobs 3D (to name a few based in Birmingham) for years.
International Reshoring Efforts
While, for many years, offshoring production has been seen as the approach to take for companies in the UK – largely due to cutting costs and accessing the technology and specialist workers that exist abroad – this has led to overreliance on the stability of the geopolitical landscape, on the effectiveness of remote communication and management of processes from the UK.
One way, in which companies in the Midlands can comfortably support their reshoring efforts, is with the adoption of industrial AM (additive manufacturing). Not only does this open the door for the Midlands to recapture its former status as an industrial capital, but it does so whilst allowing manufacturers to favour domestic production, in a way that disrupts and revolutionises traditional manufacturing processes.
With the current state of the geopolitical landscape (Brexit, COVID-19 and the War in Ukraine), there has to be a rethink into how supply chains, production, time-plans for delivery etc happen – with additive manufacturing being a viable solution to this for the long-term.
The Presence of Additive Manufacturing in the Midlands Today
The Midlands has always been renowned for its engineering prowess and 3D printing technologies used in additive manufacturing are no newcomer to the scene. It is an exciting technology that has already been gaining traction in the Midlands over the last decade and beyond.
There is a substantial amount of innovation with 3D printing happening in the area, and further adopters of the tech frequently appear on the radar. To name a few:
- The University of Wolverhampton
- UoW showed up in the news in 2021, for having developed a 3D printing material with the ability to kill covid in less than an hour. Read more here.
- The University of Birmingham
- Is a founding member of the MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre) and is constantly investing in research with 3D printing technologies and additive manufacturing. Read more here.
- MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre)
- The MTC in Coventry is also home to the NCAM (National Centre Additive Manufacturing) which is further home to The European Space Agency (ESA) AM Benchmarking Centreand a founding partner of the ASTM AM Center of Excellence. Read more here.
- Based in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. This company uses 3D printing for the production of fine jewellery. Read more here.
- Jaguar Land Rover
- JLR have a long history aligned with 3D printing going back to 1992, historically using the tech for prototyping and tooling. Read more here.
- Hobbs (AM)
- Are an additive manufacturing service bureau based in the Midlands
A Vision for the Future
Additive Manufacturing is already being adopted by businesses in the Midlands, and at Alexander Daniels Global we believe that 3D Printing could be the key to further opening up possibilities for the manufacturing industry in the area. With investment and saturation of the tech in the market, 3D printing could very likely be the key to restoring domestic production in the Midlands, and the UK on a larger scale too.
Beyond supporting reshoring efforts by bringing on-demand manufacturing in-house, there are various ways in which the technology can benefit the pre-existing manufacturing landscape in the region:
- It enables industrial manufacturing in small facilities in cities and towns due to low emissions, which, in addition, shortens the supply chain and gives autonomy back to the manufacturers.
- Borderless production: You can connect digitally with other parts of the world – design one thing here and produce it elsewhere.
- Materials and design freedom: Reducing part count and optimising product and part performance, further supported by the freedom to design using complex geometric structures.
- Sustainability: As opposed to subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing creates parts layer-by-layer, reducing material waste, cost and weight – there is thought to be considerably less scrap waste between 70% and 90% compared to some traditional manufacturing methods such as CNC manufacturing or injection moulding.
- Lead-time reduction: In additive manufacturing, tooling isn’t required, meaning parts can be produced quickly without the lead-time constraint.
If conscious efforts were made to combine additive manufacturing with the history of engineering in the Midlands, this technology could be a very viable option for manufacturing in the future – revolutionising and bringing production back into the city and town centres in the region in a way that could never have been done in the past, returning the Midlands to the manufacturing powerhouse of years gone by.
Supporting Adoption of Additive Manufacturing in the Region
There exist various initiatives on a regional level that support the saturation of additive manufacturing and the use of 3D printing in today’s manufacturing spaces in the Midlands. A great example of work done in the region is the DRAMA project – an initiative started in 2017 by the MTC (Manufacturing Technology Centre).
The DRAMA (Digital Reconfigurable AM for Aerospace) project looked to increase the uptake of metal AM powder bed additive manufacturing for the UK aerospace industry. The initiative saw a new metal powder bed facility built at the NCAM (National Centre for Additive Manufacturing), the development of knowledge assets such as the Knowledge Hub (an online resource library) and AM training courses provided by the MTC that could support companies looking to develop their AM strategies, products, processes and implementation.
Off the back of this project, these knowledge assets are still available for businesses looking for information on how they can adopt and develop their AM strategies, with advice on ways to upskill staff to prepare for a shift in strategy and free advice on any roadblocks faced with design with/for additive manufacturing.
In order to further advance the uptake and saturation of 3D printing in manufacturing settings, more exposure should be given to companies that use AM technologies and who are using it well. Furthermore, if you’re a business looking to adopt 3D printing, looking into organising visits to businesses already using the tech, in order to carry out field research, would be a great way to start.
But finally, and perhaps most obviously, the AM industry in the Midlands should look to exploit connections with other organisations that already promote and support adoption of AM. For example, for those who don’t know, every year the TCT Group organises and hosts the TCT 3Sixty exhibition at the N.E.C (National Exhibition Centre) in Birmingham with over 300 AM vendors exhibiting on the show floor. In fact, the recently released first wave of speakers revealed the MTC as one of the presenters at this year’s conference.
With increased collaboration and partnership in support of AM across the Midlands, such as the example given above, we should see the region successfully reclaiming manufacturing once again – this time with additive manufacturing at the helm.
About Loxley and Sophie
Loxley Graham, Head of Europe & ROW (Alexander Daniels Global)
Loxley is actively involved in the Additive Manufacturing industry and has been recruiting specialised 3D printing talent since 2016. He has become well known amongst candidates and employers and recently contributed to NAMIC Singapore’s GAMS2021 event with talks on career pathways for talent in AM. He is constantly looking for ways to support the growth of the industry through talent both domestically and internationally.
Sophie Pontoppidan, Digital Marketing Executive (Alexander Daniels Global)
Sophie manages the Digital Marketing at Alexander Daniels Global and wrote and curated the 2022 Additive Manufacturing Salary Survey Report – the first and most comprehensive report of its kind in 3D printing. With only 1 year in the industry, she has become very taken with the positive energy and innovation that she sees as a core theme in AM.