8 ways 3D printing is starting an innovation revolution from the South West

From the World's first 3D-printed bike and advanced prototyping for the VR industry to machines that can recycle 3D 'ink'
24th October 2017

Just ten years ago 3D printing was a large and expensive tool used almost exclusively in the manufacturing industry to develop prototype parts – most often playing a supportive role in product development.

Then came the RepRap project from the University of Bath which gave birth to a whole new wave of affordable 3D printing with a revolutionary open-source design that allowed anyone to 3D print themselves their very own 3D printer.

This was part of a surge in entry-level printers such as the Makerbot and suddenly your everyday geek could print themselves their very own 3D Star Wars characters in their garden shed.

Things have come a long way since then – but the South West is still at the top of its game when it comes to using these innovative techniques to develop some of the most unique and exciting products and projects in the UK, so we gathered some of our favourites for you to enjoy below.

HiETA Technologies

In 2016, Bristol-based startup HiETA set up its advanced technology centre at the Bristol and Bath Science Park in order to provide the perfect combination of experience, knowledge and technology in advanced 3D printing.

The company uses a technique called additive manufacturing which allows it to create lightweight, honeycomb metal structures allowing for added aerodynamic or strength benefits that are almost impossible to create so easily using any other technique.

In just three years, its team has grown from two to over 20 and they’ve cemented themselves into the South West innovation scene, producing the 3D-printed bike parts for the Robot Bike Co (more on them below), taking part in a collaborative R&D project with Bath University and AXES Design by producing a waste-heat heat exchanger to 650°C and having its recuperator featured as part of the micro-turbine range extender in the super low-carbon Ariel HiPERCAR.

This is a startup that is fast becoming to go-to destination for additive manufacturing expertise in the UK.

Robot Bike Co.

If you thought it wasn’t possible to design a bespoke bike frame ready for a 3D printer in less than 30 seconds, think again.

Along with Bristol-based partners HiETA Technologies, global engineering firm Renishaw and precision engineering company Altair, this startup has been able to 3D print parts of its lightweight, super-strength bike frame with the perfect fit for each user – improving its performance by a magnitude above traditionally manufactured frames.

If you fancy having a go at designing one yourself, all you need to do is put in your measurements using Robot Bike Company’s online site, which has a database of over 225,720 geometric possibilities, and in a matter of seconds the algorithms will come up with a frame design that is ready to be manufactured and perfect for you.

For a process that normally takes months, this is a truly unique and innovative new use of 3D printing technologies that is revolutionising the way in which these technologies are used.

EngX

 

3D printing is, of course, still a highly valuable assistive tool in manufacturing, but current 3D printers only address one aspect of production – manufacturing a product’s structure. Assembly and wiring is still incredibly labour intensive with few automated solutions available.

Changing this for the better, University of Bristol graduates have designed a new type of ‘printer’ (previously known as OMNI), that automates 3D printing, assembly and wiring in one single machine – enabling the batch production of niche and custom products without the need for any manual labour.

Check out the video below to see more about EngX:

 

Earlier this year, and after just six months of development, the startup headed to China’s Silicon Valley having gained backing from one of the world’s leading hardware accelerators, Hax, in Shenzhen, China.

They’re hoping to launch a pilot officially in early 2018 and are currently looking for pilot partners – if you’re interested you can get in touch with the team via the EngX website.

OmniDynamics

For those with a multitude of design ideas and concepts, 3D printing parts can be costly – not to mention wasteful.

Bristol-based OmniDyamics has developed a desktop machine called Strooder that transforms recyclable plastic into 3D-printing filament so that old prototypes can become new ones – without any need for expensive specialist 3D printing pellets or any plastic going to waste.

The machine is simple to use but the speed and temperature can still be varied to work with a wide variety of different plastics – making 3D printing even more accessible. Following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, you can now purchase your very own Strooder on the OmniDynamics website.

Open Bionics

Just a few years ago entrepreneur Joel Gibbard, the founder of Open Bionics, impressed all with his open-source design for a 3D-printed robotic prosthetic that had huge potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who have lost a limb.

Particularly life-changing for children, the design allowed for a cost reduction of thousands of pounds with the ability to cheaply and easily reprint parts of the arm to allow for their fast growth.

Setting their goals high paid-off for this much talked about startup, with its accolades including being accepted onto the Disney startup accelerator programme, winning numerous awards at the SPARKies tech and digital awards and even exhibiting at the Science Museum in London – to name just a few. Its Bristol-based team are now expanding at a fast rate, so if you know any talented robotics engineers, send them Open Bionics’ way.

Renishaw

With its multinational research centre based in Gloucester, world-leading engineering and scientific technology company Renishaw are huge players in the advanced 3D-printing market – producing its very own systems for additive manufacturing used by other technology firms across the world.

Certainly not a one-trick pony, Renishaw specialises in measurement, motion control, healthcare, spectroscopy and manufacturing.

Its expertise has been used for the aforementioned World’s first 3D printed metal bike frame, in healthcare for facial reconstruction (using ceramic 3D printing) and the development of parts for the BLOODHOUND supersonic car to name just a few. If you want to know more, check out the 3D printing page on Renishaw’s website.

Ignitec

The small but perfectly formed product design consultancy Ignitec is aiming to be a part of some of the most game-changing products of the future – including in virtual reality, wearables and the internet of things.

Amongst many advanced technologies, the company uses 3D printing tech to help people develop cutting-edge products and turn ideas into realities.

Already integrated into the South West’s growing startup scene, its team created the prototype for Bristol-based VR remote control chair VRgo (pictured right) after they had secured Kickstarter funding. They have also assisted in the development of everything from wireless headphones to smart watches.

Do you know a South-West-based company making innovative use of 3D technologies that we haven’t mentioned? Tell us about them!

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