The Science and Design of 3D Printing

The EPSRC centre at the University of Nottingham is re-defining how we need to understand the many processes at work in ‘Additive Manufacturing’ 

The field of Additive Manufacturing developed out of an area called Rapid Prototyping in the 1980s explains Dr Chris Tuck, Deputy Director of the EPSRC Centre of Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing. The manufacturing process wasn’t particularly rapid, and Additive Manufacturing was a more exact descriptor of a process that was ‘additive’ – rather than subtracting materials or forming material around moulds. 

Chis Tuck is part of a research group that comprises between 45 and 50 people solely devoted to Additive Manufacturing. ‘We work in effectively three or four different areas which we separate into manufacturing processes, materials, design, then implementation.’ These areas highlight the fact that the group consider additive manufacturing as a process that requires strategic thinking – from concept to materials to end-use. They are exploring highly focussed, customizable aspects of what is popularly known as ‘3D Printing’. 

 ‘I am a materials person,’ explains Dr Tuck, ‘and we’ve got a lot of materials people in now because each test requires very specific types of materials. When you are pushing components and products from these processes, we need to understand what they are going to be like, if they are going to work and more often than not, modify them so that they do work.’

"3D printing isn’t just squeezing out ink that turns into objects"

Dr Tuck’s own journey as a researcher reflects the diversity of disciplines that feed into this rapidly growing new field. In 1998 He achieved a BEng (Hons) in Materials Science and Engineering from Brunel University. While he was doing his Engineering Doctorate with the Sensors and Composites Group at Cranfield University, he also took undertook part of the Cranfield Executive MBA programme as part of his four year course. 3D printing isn’t just squeezing out ink that turns into objects. It’s about deploying scientific research across a range of areas, addressing specific product/business needs, and delivering solutions. The science, and the management of the science is as layered as ‘3D printing’ itself. 

The kinds of scientists required by pioneering centres such as the one at Nottingham University is evolving too. ‘Ten years ago we would have had mechanical and manufacturing engineers and materials engineers probably,’ says Tuck.  ‘Now particularly for the EPSRC side of things we have biochemists, pharmaceutical physics, chemistry, materials.  It’s a lot broader as you need this broad base to push manufacturing techniques. We still take mechanical engineers but it’s spread out massively.’ 

High-level, customized additive manufacturing involves interconnecting systems of thinking and making. ‘The processes that we use are completely interlinked with the materials that we want,’ explains Tuck. With respect to the design he says, ‘to do proper design for a given component you need to understand what the material is going to be like.’ It’s a complex operation, ‘combining manufacturing system, the design and the materials that need to interact. Which is why,’ says Tuck, ‘we have 50 people and you need very different skill sets.’ 

The EPSRC centre, he says, ‘is probably where most of our efforts are at the moment.’ It functions as an umbrella for a range of activities and research. ‘We have a lot of materials work going on there. The whole idea of multi-materials and multi-functionality is really what we are interested in.’ They are exploring how the same machine can deposit different kinds of material, metallic, polymer, ceramic, semi-conductor or biological materials. ‘We have got about six or seven projects going on multi functional materials and processes, multi-functional design systems.