The manufacturing sector in Malta is set to be transformed by 3D printing, according to stakeholders, who have stated that the digital technology is gaining ground locally. This is due to its capability to decrease time, cost and logistical requirements, reduce waste and ensure more flexible working methods, resulting in a more varied output, they said.
“With 3D printing, you are working in a digital world, in which each and every product can be unique, customisable and created on demand,” James Attard Kingswell, Innovation Manager at manufacturing giant Toly, said. Indeed, in his view, these advantages have enabled the technology to grow from strength to strength on the island, with “more and more companies purchasing both lower-cost machines to provide their engineers with quick ways to prototype, and larger-scale machines for higher-end applications.”
He stated that the uptake had increased drastically more recently. “Both our intelligent workforce and our economy, which is focused on digital industries and services, make 3D printing very attractive as we move further away from traditional manufacturing,” he noted. These upward trends are set to continue, according to Ing. Attard Kingswell, who said that “once a company experiments with small investments in the technology”, they begin to see the potential and “become less risk-averse in terms of applying it to larger problems.”
Toly was one of the first companies in Malta to invest heavily in the technology, and is one of the first to adopt 3D Systems ProJet machine based on Polyjet technology – a high-end, ultra-precise 3D printer – for its corporate offices. It has gone on to establish partnerships with leading suppliers, such as Ultimaker and 3DZ, and is also currently rolling out a worldwide programme which will see several small Ultimaker 3D printers set up in their manufacturing, trading and even sales offices, as well as those of their clients, allowing for time and cost savings.
“Our Maltese design team can design something, start it printing on our US sales office printer remotely, and owing to the time difference, by the time the US team arrives in the office in the morning, the part will be ready to be removed and shown to a client on the same day,” he said. “3D files can be sent over and products manufactured locally with 3D print farms, thus allowing for a reduction in carbon emissions along the supply chain.” Moreover, this eliminates many of the other hurdles currently facing the manufacturing sector, such as the necessity to have a “minimum order quantity” and “capital investments” which, the Innovation Manager states, “are often a barrier for manufacturing of new products.”
Companies can “merge traditional processes with 3D printing,” creating hybrid systems such as ”3D printing injection moulding tools using metal or polymer 3D printing machines”. Furthermore, the technology allows for a more efficient use of human and automation resources. “With 3D printing you can create a multi-part product with moving features in one instance, whereas with traditional manufacturing you would need an operator or an automaton to assemble different parts together to make your final product, which is a slow process.”
This means that the new technology will require a new and more advanced skillset. “Local educational institutions are adapting to the change: we get requests from schools to demonstrate the technology as part of their STEM initiatives. Higher educational institutions, such as the University, not only have their own equipment, but generally co-share capabilities with us and other local manufacturers. In this way, students have a greater range of different 3D printing equipment to work and learn with. All of this gives them a much better grasp of the technology for when they enter the workforce.”
These views were echoed by Carla Aguirre, Sales Account Manager at 3DZ, a global retailer of 3D printing equipment and supplies, who also highlighted the increasing popularity of the technology in Malta. “It is getting more and more popular. In 2018, we had five companies who purchased a professional 3D printer for their products and the take-up of 3D scanning is also on the rise. It is indeed a revolution for the manufacturing industry, since you can print basically anything, anytime and in the quantity required.” She also stressed its capability to allow the “manufacture of something that was not possible with traditional methods”, giving an incredible “design freedom” to engineers and designers.
The company, which has offices on the island, sees Malta as instrumental to its operations. “3DZ is present in several countries and Malta, being so central, has been the perfect choice to operate from. The financial support available and the access to international professionals is unparalleled,” Ms Aguirre stated. Indeed, the company has invested in educational initiatives designed to further enhance knowledge and awareness of 3D printing and scanning capabilities, including two workshops on how the technology is used in architecture and in R&D, though the manufacturing sector also stands to make continued substantial gains.
“There is a tsunami of opportunity within the manufacturing industry, even when it comes to jobs. We do not expect job losses, but the jobs created will be different. There will be huge opportunities for 3D designers, engineers trained to handle the technology and sales people ready to sell customised products – not only those categorised as ‘off the shelf’.”
Issam Bahloul, the director of Full Circle 3D, and Amber Keurntjes, the company’s coordinator and 3D modeller, corroborated many of these sentiments. The SME, which provides 3D printing services to a variety of local professionals, including within the manufacturing sector, stated that while 3D technology is still “quite costly”, prices are expected to go down, resulting in increased profitability within the industry.
“3D printing is a great step towards the future. It has opened new doors and its technology has shown to be beneficial for humanity at large, making our lives easier. We have seen that ourselves. A recent project we completed a few months ago involved the creation of over a thousand prototypes of the same design.” This is something which would not have been possible before the advent of the technology, according to the two entrepreneurs, who stated that “its wide applicational uses and few restrictions allow it to be of benefit to many industries, especially in a small country such as Malta, allowing for larger possibilities regarding product design, manufacturing and range of products.”
Both expressed belief in the future of the technology, stating that while new technologies take time to root within a society, they expect the use of 3D capabilities to “continue to ascend drastically.” They stressed that “it won't be long till other businesses will start to specialise in the provision of such services or commence to make use of the technology”, voicing a high-degree of confidence in the technology and its ability to change the way systems and procedures are currently carried out.
This article originally appeared in The Malta Business Observer