MTC | KnowledgeHub |

background, benefits and challenges

What is additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a diverse set of technologies where products are created by building layers of material on top of another until a complete 3D object is formed. AM is already demonstrating its potential to revolutionise the way products are designed, manufactured and supplied. AM is already transforming the way some companies manufacture their products and has the potential to put the UK at the forefront of global manufacturing.

AM is not new, this ground-breaking technology has been used for Rapid Prototyping within sectors such as automotive and tooling for more than 30 years. However, rapid development of the technology means that AM is now becoming reality for end-use parts and tooling across a range of sectors, from aerospace to food production, as companies seek to take advantage of design freedoms, product performance enhancements and waste reductions that can be achieved with AM.

This short video gives an overview of Additive Manufacturing (AM) in a simple accessible manner.







The worldwide market for all AM products and services is estimated to be worth over £6bn in 2017, growing to £20bn by 2022. In 2017 the UK had a 5% market share, and as a worldwide leader in High Value Manufacturing (HVM) the UK has strong foundations to expand its share of this global market opportunity resulting in new job creation and a significant increase in Gross Value Added (GVA). Source: Additive Manufacturing UK National Strategy 2018-2025.

The opportunities for the UK include (but are not limited to):

  • Direct revenues from the production of AM components
  • Creating a robust UK supply chain for AM part manufacture
  • Provision of best in class process chain equipment and services to the worldwide AM market



The potential benefits of the adoption of AM technologies are huge. This technology provides the capability to transform and enhance product development and production in a wide range of sectors and applications. It can enable the reconfiguring of supply chains allowing production close to the point of consumption and deliver the benefits of mass customisation. Many of the wide-ranging benefits when adopting AM can be summarised as below:

Product Function Attributes

Ability to design parts with geometric features that cannot be made any other way. This design freedom enables products with enhanced functionality such as higher structural efficiency through light weighting, or increased thermal control through complex internal and external geometric features, or improved fluid flow through optimised flow paths.
Materials are being specifically designed for use in these processes to improve processing and to provide better material properties. In addition, being able to control the spatial distribution of a material through a solid body which is possible in many AM technologies is also a huge opportunity to optimise a products’ performance.
As tooling isn’t required for AM parts, each part can be tailored to its specific use or user, providing economic mass customisation options.
AM enables parts to be designed and manufactured as one part due to design freedom, leading to reduced part counts and assembly costs, and a more optimised overall part that can be significantly more size- and material-efficient.

Product Supply Attributes

AM uses a layer-by-layer approach to add material to create the final geometry compared to subtractive manufacturing approaches which remove material. This can result in significant material savings during production on top of reduced material required for new lightweight or more compact designs, and greater efficiencies of running lighter vehicles (e.g. reduced fuel requirement).
AM can be used as an ‘on demand’ service, where parts are produced just ahead of when they are needed. Once a part is qualified for AM this can reduce the need to hold extensive (and costly) product stocks, and also provides more resilience to the supply chain.
As tooling isn’t required, parts can be manufactured more quickly or without the lead time constraint, and rapid design iterations can be realised without expensive outlay on tooling. The absence of tooling also means manufacture can be nearer to the point of use reducing lead times further.
AM can offer significant through-life benefits in terms of reduced cost. This can occur at all stages of the life cycle, including manufacture, but commonly the biggest benefits are experience in the use phase through improved performance. Costs of using AM are reducing all the time which broadens the range of economic applications.


There are significant opportunities for companies to improve their competitiveness by successfully adopting AM. However, the process is not as simple as it is often portrayed and “just clicking print” is far away from the truth when serious production application is concerned. The entire process from part design and production, to inspection and certification needs to be considered before AM can be successfully deployed. There are real challenges to be understood and overcome as a company adopts AM which are now briefly explained.

The productivity of the AM systems and the complexity of the process chain can mean higher costs for manufacture for many parts, including a significant burden of post-processing steps. The technology is new and there is a general lack of understanding and availability of data. There are rapid developments in the technology across the whole process chain and whilst these can improve capabilities and efficiencies, it proves a challenge as companies try to qualify parts.

Material choices, whilst growing, are still limited, and variability of material properties and surface finish pose a challenge to achieving performance levels required. In addition, the material feedstock required by AM processes, such as fine metal powders, is unfamiliar to many companies and requires significant understanding and control procedures to be in place to ensure quality and safety.

High value complex parts that are ideal candidates for AM are often a challenge to design, produce, and verify as the AM process chain relies upon a wide range of non-AM processes to achieve a finished part. Designing parts for AM often requires a reappraisal of the functional requirements of a product and a desire to avoid being constrained by previous designs for conventional manufacture, as well as a good understanding of the constraints that do exist for AM. The less-constrained design space can be explored with use of new design simulation and optimisation tools, which helps a designer achieve a better performing product that can be manufactured using AM.

Getting started and achieving success with AM requires significant commitment and support, and the National Centre for AM helps companies through their entire AM journey. We can provide advice and solutions for the whole process, from initial designs to product delivery, and even factory implementation, irrespective of your previous experience in AM.

More detail on Additive Manufacturing can be found in the Knowledge Hub here