Dr. Christopher Tuck of University of Nottingham Discusses Ongoing University Research Efforts
Interview with Dr. Christopher Tuck, Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Research Group, University of Nottingham
Dr. Christopher Tuck outlines the research efforts at University of Nottingham's Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Research Group. The organization's primary objective is to research into the design, materials, processes, and implemtation of additive manufacturing into industry.
Dr. Christopher Tuck began his experience at Loughborough University in the Additive Manufacturing Research Group, principally working in the supply and business effects of additive manufacturing on a number of DTI, EUFP6 and EPSRC funded projects. During his time at Loughborough University, he ran a number of TSB (atkins) and industry funded projects, principally around the development of new materials (polymeric and metallic), process development and wider socio-economic implications of advanced manufacturing.
His current work at University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Engineering includes a number of projects based around the manufacture of multi-material and multifunctional inkjet printing, nano-scale additive manufacturing systems, and the development of metallic advanced manufacturing systems for use in industry.
Dr. Tuck is also involved in creating international standards, as an Executive Member of the ASTM F42 AM standards committee and participant in the BSi initiative of AM standards development.
AMI: Could you quickly sketch out your organizations experience in additive manufacturing?
TUCK: We were probably one of the first universities to have any type of rapid prototyping equipment in the early 90s, led by a gentleman named Professor Phil Dickens. So we’ve got a very long history in working in additive manufacturing and 3D printing and are probably one of the first organizations to start looking at this as a manufacturing technique.
AMI: Is your function entirely research oriented?
TUCK: We are primarily research organization. We are part of the university and so we do research alongside teaching. We do run some undergraduate courses in additive manufacturing, but our primary function is research into all things to do with additive manufacturing. We have different clusters of work; around
design, materials, processes, and implementation of the technology into industry. We are funded through grants from the government and also through contract research with companies.
AMI: What would you consider the biggest technology challenges that see in advanced manufacturing from the work you are doing?
TUCK: I think the two biggest areas are the design side, which is having the right complementary design tools for additive manufacturing, and the materials that these machines produce.
On the design side, it is not necessarily the designers but having the right design tools and understanding the limitations and the potential advantages of taking an additive manufacturing approach. On the materials side, the majority materials that we use have been developed for
other processes such as injection molding or casting or machining. They haven’t been developed for additive manufacturing specifically and that is a problem. We need materials that are functional in our current processes and other new processes that we develop. We need materials that have repeatability and the kind of aspects that you would expect from material coming out of a casting or machining process.
Again, it comes down to designing the kind of structures we want that utilizes the benefits of additive manufacturing and the materials that will be used.
AMI: What do you think will constitute the biggest technological changes 3 to 5 years from now?
TUCK: I think the design side will always be improving with computational techniques getting better and better. So I don’t see there being a massive shift, so you’ll be able to do better design with better design tools. And then you will be trying to think of the next best type of design tool.
At the moment people are really trying to find ways to make the materials that come out of the machines repeatable and reliable. And hopefully in 5 years’ time we will at least understand why that problem exists and be looking at developing new materials for these processes.
Maybe into new processes fast and cheaper, but it really comes down to materials interacting with processing.
AMI: What do you think is the biggest business challenge currently facing the additive manufacturing space?
TUCK: The biggest business challenge for me is reliability, which is, having components coming out of the machines in a reliable, repeatable fashion. Developmental work is also needed to govern the machine in the area of the reliability of the processes. Work is needed in how the machines monitor themselves, whether they have closed loop control on the type of processes that are occurring, and how they embed quality control into those processes.
AMI: Some people have suggested that a good understanding of the physics of the materials and processes is required to simulate and without the ability to accurately simulate, it’s very hard to design control systems. Would you agree with that?
TUCK: Really understanding the processes going on in the machine whatever that machine might be is actually fundamentally important to the people you are making the part for.
AMI: What would you like the people or the companies that interact with you or with your department to understand better about your department?
TUCK: I think we would like them to understand the challenges we face in terms of how we process materials. We don’t make parts for anybody, since we are mainly research, unless it’s part of a testing program or something like that. However, we do investigate new materials, new processes, new design systems and things like that. Sometimes when you think of putting all of them together is really when you get the best benefits. Whether it’s a research point of view or a business point of view the holistic thinking in additive is of premier importance. There are advantages of using of design for additive manufacturing, new materials, but if you don’t think about the process chain and implementation, you won't
understand the benefits of the processes. That’s what I would like people to understand more actually.
AMI: What would you like to understand in more depth about the needs and constraints or about the general situation of the companies you interact with or that might interact with in the future?
TUCK: We deal very closely with industry, so we have a quite decent idea what the pressures are, but I think we would like to understand better what peoples’ timescales for implementation are. Understanding time requirements of individuals that come to see us with research ideas is probably the most important. When we understand the timelines then we can understand how to approach something in a slightly different way and structure our research programs to be as the person requires.
AMI: This space seems to require a certain amount of multi-company or multi-organization cooperative behavior in order to overcome some of the hurdles. Do you agree with the statement?
TUCK: I think the problem is thinking additive manufacturing is one process and it’s not, it’s seven different processes and different categories of machines within those, so it’s not a single solution. If it were then you could get one company or one university sorting it out, but because it’s so many different types of technologies being brought together under a banner of additive manufacturing, it’s difficult to generalize. One company may be a polymers organization and one may be a metals organization and the rules for one machine are very different for
another machine. There can’t be a single entity solution because it’s not a single entity problem, its lots of different problems under one banner.
AMI: Do you think there are other kind of joint actions like the development of standards or other activities that need to occur to kind of speed up the commercialization of this?
TUCK: The standards actions are already occurring and they are getting better. To be honest the more people that are involved in these activities the faster it will go and the more likely that the standards will be used and therefore push
the technology further. That’s what I would say has been the major benefit. We also have catapult centers in the UK and I know we have the American Makes functioning in the US. Those kinds of activities help to a certain extent, but what they don’t necessarily help is the people in the mid-tier of manufacturers or the supply chains. They help the OEMs at the top. For it to really take off then it needs to be filtered down. Really getting the supply chains involved to the same place as the OEMs involvement so they can develop these machines and develop their capabilities. It can’t all be down to developing brand new businesses just on additive manufacturing. Somebody somewhere is going to have to take this and run with it.
AMI: As additive manufacturing ramps up, presumably OEMs will have to make a major push into the supply chain to get everybody ready to go to that volume of activity.
TUCK: Yes it’s kind of cascading down at the moment. You’ve got your OEMs like GE in the US and Rolls Royce in the UK and those kind of companies really now getting interested in this because they see some benefits. They kind of have to generate their supply chain themselves by pushing them towards this technology. It would be really interesting if one of those guys on the supply chains says “you know what, I'm going to be the guy who does this because it’s actually not going away and I want to be the one everybody comes to.” It’s a big opportunity there, particularly in the aerospace industry if somebody was willing to take that leap. The problem is it’s such an expensive manufacturing technology and you don’t want to get saddled with all of that capital spent.
AMI: The rapid pace of innovation and development would seem to require healthy amounts of capital. Where do you see this capital coming from especially for the small players in the space?
TUCK: It’s a difficult question because you know a lot of the funding in the past has come from either big industries providing their own machines for themselves or from the government providing facilities to be developed and to be shared. I think if you have the business plan and the market analysis then the capital will come along to additive. Like any other manufacturing technology if you have the market, you have the customer base, then I think you can make it work but until you know that it’s difficult to develop your business plan and find out where you’ll get any capital from.
It’s strange because I don’t know whether it’s a bit of a bubble effect at the moment because it is such a hyped technology today and the investors are looking for the next Google or the next Apple or whatever it might be. Is it additive manufacturing?Well maybe if they could find the right person.
AMI: As somebody said, without the telecom boom in the late 90s we wouldn’t have the internet services today. Sometimes there is a place for bubbles.
TUCK: There is and again it’s getting the technology out there and generating interest. Had all of this media exposure not occurred would they be interested? Probably not because they probably wouldn’t know about it. When investment communities get involved they have to see a sensible return on the investments they make and as we know the investments aren’t small. Somebody is going to want to return on their investment at some point while stock prices keep continue going up. That’s great and they might incubate lots and lots of different useful companies and I think that’s a good thing.
AMI: There has been a lot of discussion in technology press about the problems additive manufacturing may have in terms of intellectual properties. Does your organization spent any time thinking about that or is that beyond your remit?
TUCK: We think about it, not in terms of copying and piracy but really on how you maintain your own data. A lot of advantages are developed through software advantages and software tool advantages and things like that and really benefiting from the know-how that you have is quite tricky. This is not really from the counterfeit point of view but more making the most out from the IP that is difficult to protect.
AMI: Okay, what we’ve talked about anyway in the focus of all this has primarily on aerospace application of additive but I have heard that a lot of the innovation that might be applied in aerospace has originated in other applications. Health care and biomedical applications certainly are heavily quoted. Do you find aerospace people generally following any particular alternative industry basically to just sort of see what’s going on or because they think it may be useful for them later?
TUCK: Yes and I think medical is quite parallel because of the potential from the equipment. Most of it is or has been in the past titanium based. So we have basically been following quite a similar path as the medical industry in that we have a highly expensive component that we want to strip weight out of or change the design or make it bespoke for a particular situation. Medical is probably the one with the biggest driver and the most followable.
AMI: Do you look to the adaption of other technology as a way of predicting the future of the adoption of additive manufacturing? Is there any parallel application that has ever struck you as a good analogy that might be insightful going forward?
TUCK: It’s kind of similar to the way you have your smart phone now, so that your smart phone is a platform for lots of different things. Additive manufacturing is a platform to enable you to do lots of different things in one go. The capability is quite rudimentary at the moment but when the machines are more reliable and more repeatable then we will see nuanced applications for them. When you get hopefully multiple material processes like we are focusing on here at Nottingham, you’ll get different types of products and different kinds of markets opening up. So I think the smart phone app is an analogy that does work quite well with additive manufacturing as a concept. Really what you have is one machine that you are trying to use to do all things. Although they are different and at the moment some are done reasonably well and some of them less well but eventually a lot more will be able to be done just depending on the capability of the platform.