Rapid response

Innovative product development technology can help UK manufacturers as global competition intensifies.

With manufacturing ‘back on the map’ for the UK, and an increasingly competitive global manufacturing landscape, the implementation of cutting edge ‘rapid prototyping’ technology is delivering tangible results for UK manufacturers across many sectors. By circumventing traditional product development routes and enabling companies – both large and small – to develop new products and get to market without delay, it is opening up a new world of business opportunity.

Despite the general air of gloom associated with the economic downturn, the UK recession and the country’s subsequent sluggish recovery, the recent impressive performance of Britain’s manufacturing base cannot be ignored. The UK has witnessed a positive and surprising underlying strength in UK manufacturing with the sector enjoying growth of 3.8% in 2010 – significantly up on the overall economy at just 2.1%. It now contributes approximately 11% of the UK’s GDP and employs over two million people. The UK also currently occupies a global position as the sixth largest nation in terms of manufacturing output, putting us behind behemoths like the USA – but ahead of nations such as France and Canada.

Both the last Labour Government and the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition administrations have encouraged a ‘re-balancing’ of the economy to move it away from an over-reliance on the financial and service sectors.

Political leaders want a return to the business of ‘making things’ once more. To support this objective, UK manufacturing has, in recent times, made an important contribution to the nation’s general fiscal health through a number of consecutive months of recorded growth. Benign conditions such as the weak pound have helped, but nonetheless UK manufacturers have stepped up to the plate in the past two to three years.

However, competing upon the world manufacturing stage brings with it significant challenges for UK companies. This is brought into sharp contrast if longer-term prospects are measured against those of the traditional manufacturing super-powers such as the US and Japan – in addition to the recent and formidable evolution of the so-called ‘BRIC’ countries: Brazil, Russia, India and, most powerfully of all, China.

Because of the advancements by these nations, it is now a grim reality that the manufacturing-led growth witnessed in emerging economies means that there are many goods which the UK (as well as other large parts of Europe) will fail to ever again produce competitively.

If the UK is to return once more to being the manufacturing power of old, it has to make the most of the advantages it currently holds.

The West Midlands’ region is one that has long actively embraced manufacturing and has, for many decades, been at the forefront of manufacturing and engineering excellence. It is a regional hotbed of innovation. It is also home to many small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) which are playing a key part in re-igniting the UK’s manufacturing fires. For such companies, the clear link between investment (like countries abroad) in technology and innovative research and development solutions in order to gain a business foothold – and power growth – is well proven. This community, in particular, should be examining closely the potential for business opportunity that can only be aided by an open mind that is prepared to engage with established technological solutions that exist right here on its doorstep.

A real and tangible advantage the UK holds when looking at how it can differentiate and compete on the world manufacturing stage are the skills, expertise and knowledge already enshrined within its shores. This underpins the UK’s ability to deliver innovative technology solutions here and abroad – and the advent of rapid prototyping technology is a prime example.

In essence, such technology – developed and now in use within the UK – answers an age-old conundrum for manufacturers. Namely, how can companies speed up their new product development and consequently reduce their time to market?

The sooner a product can be taken through the design and development stage and into production; the sooner companies see a return on their outlay and investment.

Rapid prototyping embraces a number of technologies and processes including vacuum casting, selective laser sintering, fused deposition modelling and Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM).

Although the technology initially began with the construction of prototypes, it has been developed over recent years to the extent that complete products can be created quickly for the further research, testing and development stages needed before mass production can commence.

At the University of Wolverhampton, Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) is being used extensively by businesses in many sectors for rapid prototyping and product testing. Unlike traditional manufacturing methods, ALM requires no direct human contact or any special machinery or tools. Instead, it uses 3D data to develop solid objects. The objects are developed from a very fine powder which is placed in layers. After each layer a laser melts the powder in the appropriate place, another layer of powder is added, lasered and so on until the design is complete. The final object appears through the layers of powder, ready to be dusted down, polished and put to use.

Jon Rackley, Senior Consultant from the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Technology says: "Because the rapid prototyping process is driven by the computer-generated design, this allows for changes to the original design to be easily input with any changes reflected immediately in the product prototype, rather than the traditional labour intensive methods such as lathes and milling machines."

Indeed, several variations of the same product can be created without delay to allow comparisons to be quickly made. It is already extensively used by such diverse sectors as high end fashion and motorsport, as well as for businesses that are sensitive to product development speed such as those found in the packaging, medical and automotive sectors.

The UK development of rapid prototyping technology is symptomatic of the breadth of innovative thinking that currently exists within the UK’s highly-skilled engineering community. If utilised properly, such skills can help transform the UK manufacturing landscape from one populated with ‘followers’ – companies which have had to go abroad to access the necessary expertise to bring their products to market – into one inhabited in the future by ‘leaders’ as the nation’s manufacturing base leads the way in fast response product development and product innovation.

Jon Rackley added: "Rapid prototyping is destined to be a key technology of the future as increasing numbers of businesses realise the advantages inherent in being able to produce a highly accurate prototype of a proposed new product and enable them to swiftly pass through the various stages to market penetration."

As the UK sets about actively putting manufacturing back at the heart of its economic future, and manufacturing companies seek to conquer the challenges of global competition which sees new and more competitive entrants every year, employing the clear benefits of a rapid prototyping technology solution – accuracy, speed and repeatability – means that such competition can be met head on from a position of strength.

The message is clear. The UK is open for manufacturing business. Technological innovation as demonstrated by rapid prototyping is helping to lead the way and showcase British innovation at its best.