Gathering pace

As new digital technologies allow an ever-greater amount of real materials to be used, rapid manufacturing is no longer a pipe dream. Anna Richardson visits The Bartlett’s new DM centre to explore what is already possible

In the basement of The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at University College London, a couple of giant machines are quietly humming, as they laser sinter gleaming white objects into existence.

The laboratory-white complex of rooms belongs to the institution’s new-born Digital Manufacturing Centre. Opened earlier this year, DMC is spearheaded by Martin Watmough, who had previously turned the Royal College of Art’s Rapidform digital manufacturing and rapid prototyping centre into the largest, most successful facility of its type in the world.

The reason for Watmough’s move was simple: even though the funding at Rapidform was abundant, space was lacking. Watmough’s heart was set on selective laser sintering apparatus, which doesn’t come small. The SLS creates parts in 100 per cent dense nylon, so instead of producing master models, it can create a part in a real material, which means a move from rapid prototyping to rapid manufacturing. ‘Rather than a product development tool per se, it becomes a manufacturing tool, which opens enormous opportunities,’ says Watmough.

The technology is ideal for the architectural sector. It needs no supporting structure and produces high-detail components in the contemporary architectural aesthetic of pure white. In addition, it allows for the production of fully functioning moving parts, and therefore ‘opens up enormous opportunities in revisiting legacy products and designs, and applying design optimisation to them’, says Watmough.

Today, there are four SLS machines in London – two of them at The Bartlett. Together with two Z Corp printers, which build models through binding layers of plaster powder, and Watmough and his colleague Gregor Anderson’s office, they take up 70 m2 alongside other traditional architectural workshop spaces.
There are other digital manufacturing centres in the UK, such as the Rapid Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University and Autonomatic at University College Falmouth, but they are very much research-based.

Those that offer a commercial service include Rapidform and the London Metropolitan University’s Metropolitan Works. While the former is increasingly overrun by demand and the latter focuses on teaching skills, DMC offers services to ‘as many individuals and companies as we can’, says Watmough. Since 1 September, the centre has worked on more than 50 different commercial projects, producing approximately 250 models, and Watmough expects to produce around 12 000 models this academic year. DMC services The Bartlett, other schools at UCL, external higher education institutions in London, the UK and further afield, as well as commercial outfits such as micro companies and small and medium-sized enterprises.

Watmough is keen to promote all digital manufacturing technologies among the wider design community and help position London and the UK as industry leader, while the paradigm of design and manufacture shifts. ‘It’s not just my job – I’m incredibly passionate about this technology,’ he says.

Over the past 15-20 years, there has been an imbalance in the GDP of the tooling sector, with a lot of it moving to the Far East, says Watmough. But DM technology and the speed of development will negate the need for tooling in the next ten to 15 years, enabling production of millions of components on a DM machine, as well as mass customisation. And as new technologies enable more materials to be brought on board, more market sectors will open.

But as well as promoting a vision of future manufacturing, Watmough is a pragmatist. ‘If we try to push this technology at this moment in time to replace injection moulding, for example, then we’re not going to get anywhere,’ he says. ‘But what is of interest is finding the right niche, and high-value applications such as objets d’art or medical applications.’

Already, the technology has become design-critical on many levels. It can give micro-companies and SMEs the competitive edge on cost and time, enabling them to communicate with their customers and investors much quicker and reduce the cost of the proto-typing phase.

One of Watmough’s hobby-horses is bespoke, high-end design art objects, such as Michael Eden’s A Rebours, a rapid-manufactured urn which uses SLS with a proprietary ceramic coating.

At DMC there is more scope to grow. But what is number one on Watmough’s apparatus wishlist? Stereolithography, which would offer the option of clear material, opening a huge range of applications, he says, with an eye on the room next door.

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