For some years Loughborough has been considered by many to be the UK's centre of excellence for research into Additive Manufacturing (AM). While it remains to be seen whether this epithet changes, as I tweeted last week, there is a fundamental shift taking place that will reverberate for some time. In brief, the core AM research team from Loughborough, headed up by Professor Richard Hague and minus a couple of notable exceptions and a few additive machines, are going back to their roots at Nottingham University along with the bulk of the EPSRC funding as a result of Professor Hague been the primary grant holder.
It seems that the Additive Manufacturing Research Group (AMRG) moniker will remain at Loughborough, headed up as of last week by the newly appointed Professor, Russ Harris. However, this is yet to be finally determined. Russ will be focussed on his primary research areas: Ultrasonic Consolidation and Medical Applications.* Professor Phill Dickens, the guru behind the original Rapid Prototyping (RP) Research Group, will remain at Loughborough "for the foreseeable future." Take from that what you will, but personally, I get the feeling it's to do with approaching early retirement. Phill's original PhD students, most now Professors in their own right, have flown the nest. As stated, Richard and his 45+ strong team are going back to Nottingham University — their original home back in the '90s for the early research into RP under Phill, after which they took a short tenure at De Montfort University before settling at Loughborough.
As yet there is no formal identity or branding in place for the new centre at Nottingham, which seems a bit strange, however the focus is very much on the work they will be doing and one of my sources was at extreme pains to stress that this was much more important. He's not wrong, not based on the activities that are planned as he revealed them to me. Now, don't get me wrong, I do know that what I got was very much the party line, there has been much going on behind closed doors, this was alluded to in the conversation, and it doesn't take a genius to realise that the gloves have probably come off a few times in various quarters. It is unlikely that everyone is happy, but, everyone is smiling!
I must confess that I like the shape of what is emerging and find it fascinating in terms of the research focus that is planned. Essentially this comes down to a "back to basics" approach for multifunctional development of 3D printing. (Yup, they've caught on, and are moving away from the AM label to functional 3D printing. Didn't see that coming at all, but I think I like it, too!) Again according to my source, this approach will all but negate the existing additive technology platforms and using the last 20+ years' of RP/RM/AM research they will combine this with a much deeper scientific research element. And this, apparently, is where Nottingham won out — considered, as it is, to be one of the leading global scientific research universities. The interdisciplinary opportunities are vast I'm told. It seems the financial pockets are deep too.
To be honest, I'm still processing this and therefore will most likely have thoughts to add to this at a later date. But my initial response is that this is probably a good thing. (I am purposely covering my backside with the 'probably'.) The existing additive technology platforms offer industry much, you know I believe THAT, but in terms of developing further it is currently all about tweaking the processes and focussing on materials. Going back to basics to find new ways of actually processing existing and/or new materials, with the 20+ years of R&D knowledge that is abounding within the new Nottingham research team, it is not beyond the realms of expectation that they could bring about a dramatic and dynamic shift in additive capabilities — a completely new generation of intelligent 3D printers that bridges the industrial and personal uptake of 3D printing. It's a fascinating take on the current situation and one that I have to say, suggests that the team does seem to have its fingers on the pulse of what is happening in the real world.
When I tweeted last week to see if anyone know what was happening after my first hint of this, the twittersphere (at least my bit of it) was not forthcoming with information. Academics are not exactly prolific on Twitter, and as much as they are into personal networking I kind of get the feeling that Twitter is considered to be beneath their efforts. Shame really! What did happen was a reemergence of the Industry vs Academia argument. It is hardly a secret that there has been a long term stand-off between the two with industry arguing that the vast sums of funding capital that is pumped into academic research would be much better used on the front line of industry for SME's and apprenticeships. It is also argued that the capital equipment placed in research centres are ring fenced solely for research activities that may or may not become embedded in industrial outlets as a result. Furthermore these activities are only carried out by senior academics & post graduates, when it would befit the universities to open the equipment up to undergraduates and promote applied excellence that would be of value to employers and not just newly qualified career academics.
These are valid opinions, but, with a central, fairly neutral position within the argument I have had a clear view of both sides for many years, and I still stand by own opinion that actually, both academic research and industrial testing and implementation of that research are vital components in driving additive technology forward — not that either side would readily admit it, but they need each other. That said, it's always going to be an uncomfortable relationship.
I think that just about sums up the feedback I got anyway! Please feel free to add your thoughts and perspective on this - regardless of which side of the fence you are on.
Another interesting aspect of this is that despite Richard going full circle (Nottingham, De Montfort, Loughborough, Nottingham) in the wake of that circle, each of those universities has retained a dedicated and valuable research base into AM / 3DP. There are many others in the UK too: Liverpool, Sheffield, Cambridge, Cranfield, Lancaster, Bath, Exeter and UWE. There will be more but that list was off the top of my head.
All of which gives what my source told me a ring of truth, and that is that the UK has the largest and most developed scientific research base in the world for Additive technology.
It remains to be seen if we (the UK) can build on this. I want to believe it, but age and experience, not to mention the current government, leave me hoping rather than expecting to see this claim materialise and grow into itself to maximum benefit for the world at large.
* Russ will be presenting the specifics of some of his AM research for medical applications at TCTLive in September. And surgery schedules allowing, the medical staff he works with will provide the user's perspective and how it impacts their work and their patients' lives. I don't know about you, but that's a huge draw for current AM in my book.