The 3D printing landscape has evolved remarkably over the past decade, and one of the most interesting developments is the rise of PrintCity, a unique initiative housed within a university environment that seeks to blend education, innovation, and industry. Now directed by Dr. Carl Diver, PrintCity at Manchester Metropolitan University offers an innovative approach to 3D printing, providing an open and inclusive space where creativity and technology can intersect.
“It started with the vision of an open and accessible space within a university,” explains Dr. Diver during our conversation at TCT 3Sixty. “Not just asking people ‘what are you interested in?’ but ‘what are the challenges you’re facing?’ We wanted to create an inclusive environment where anyone could come in and engage with 3D printing technology.” In just over five years, PrintCity has now become a bustling hub, boasting more than 60 high-tech machines in use by hundreds of students from a diverse array of fields, including engineering, architecture, fashion, and fine arts.
The PrintCity mission isn’t confined to the university campus, however. The project’s reach extends far beyond academia, serving as a bridge to industry by equipping students with the necessary skills to thrive in today’s evolving digital landscape. “We’re creating individuals with the skillsets for industries with a strong future,” Dr. Diver asserts, highlighting the project’s pragmatic approach to education.
“We have a wide range of machines,” shares Dr. Diver, “From fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers to Stereolithography (SLA) machines.” He runs through a list of the 3D printing systems available for students to use, including Formlabs’ Form 3 and Fuse 1, Markforged’s X7, and Photocentric’s Digital Light Processing (DLP) printer.
PrintCity’s arsenal of 3D printers also includes more specialized equipment, such as the HP Multi Jet Fusion 580, which allows for full-color 3D printing, and the Markforged Metal X, which enables metal 3D printing. The diversity of machines ensures that students gain hands-on experience with a broad spectrum of 3D printing technologies, explains Dr. Diver.
Beyond the usual plastic and metal printing, PrintCity is also experimenting with more novel materials. “We’re working with a concrete printing capability as part of a European funded project,” says Dr. Diver. This involves taking demolition waste, grinding it down to the right particle size, and using it as a printing medium – a creative and eco-friendly way of recycling waste. The results so far have been promising, with pieces of 3D printed street furniture set to be placed in public spaces around Manchester as part of the project.
In this evolving world of 3D printing, PrintCity stands out by not only providing students with access to cutting-edge technology but also preparing them for the future of manufacturing. Dr. Diver and his team have created an environment that encourages exploration, innovation, and industry readiness – a blueprint that other institutions might do well to emulate.
Sustainable 3D printing projects at PrintCity
PrintCity doesn’t just focus on technological innovation. It has invested in sustainability projects that can have real-world impacts. One project involves turning plastic bottles and coffee cups into 3D printable materials. This initiative was led by Prof. Craig Banks, the founder of PrintCity and a pioneer in polymer science. The ability to recycle common waste products into usable materials represents a significant leap towards a circular economy, a key tenet of sustainable development.
PrintCity’s influence extends beyond Manchester, establishing connections with various partners around Europe. These collaborations have led to the development of unique 3D printing technologies, like the creation of 3D printed houses in Denmark. These ventures display the potential of 3D printing technology in the construction industry, further expanding the range of applications of the technology.
In addition to its groundbreaking research and collaborations, PrintCity has actively supported local businesses. With funding from European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the center has been running a program to support SMEs within Greater Manchester. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, they managed to assist over 100 companies in the past year. In the future, they plan to continue this support with new funding from Innovate UK, another testament to their commitment to the wider 3D printing ecosystem.
Industry 4.0 and innovation
3D printing on fabric, the director of PrintCity, reveals, has become of great interest to the fashion and textile industry. Dr. Diver suggested that this technique has the potential for many students from fashion and textiles at the university.
The conversation also gravitated towards the increasingly pivotal role of 3D printing in ‘Industry 4.0’ or the fourth industrial revolution. Dr. Diver observed that many larger organizations are still at the start of their journey with additive manufacturing, using it not for final products but to make their processes more efficient. For instance, some large organizations are using 3D printing to create guides to help fold material on production lines. These initial steps, while not directly visible in the final product, are nonetheless contributing to the efficiency of production processes.
The discussion also touched on the topic of industrial digitalization and the application of technologies like digital twins and plant simulation software. In this context, the interplay between academia and industry was highlighted as an important factor. Students and staff are given access to industrial software and hardware, equipping them with practical skills that mirror real-world scenarios. For example, the power of 3D printing in tackling supply chain disruptions.
Dr. Diver referred to a scenario in which a mobile phone manufacturer, whose casing supply was disrupted, had to resort to 3D printing to meet their needs. This example, though hypothetical, mirrors actual situations where supply chain crunches have been eased by 3D printing.
Dr. Diver suggests that more organizations are beginning to understand the value of additive manufacturing not just for replicating existing parts, but for optimizing and integrating components, increasing efficiency, and potentially eliminating points of failure in assembly processes. This changing mindset is leading to innovative applications in diverse sectors, not just in aerospace and automotive, but also in the supply chain of various companies.
The future at PrintCity looks promising, as it continues to make strides in research, sustainability, and community support. By pushing the limits of 3D printing technology and maintaining an unwavering commitment to sustainability, the center is set to remain at the forefront of equipping people to apply technology and propel the adoption of AM.
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Featured image shows [L-R] Dr. Carl Diver, PrintCity Director, and Technical Specialist Gary Buller. Photo via Michael Petch.