back to article A journey down the UK's '3D Tongue' into its mini industrial revolution

One of the few "horizon" technologies that is really making a difference right now is 3D printing. While other "big hope" concepts such as genetic engineering, nanotech and quantum physics have yet to make much of an impact, 3D has been making immediate inroads into traditional, sometimes ancient manufacturing techniques. …

  1. Dave 126 Silver badge

    Renishaw have been involved in two bicycle designs, one being a complete 3D printed frame - the idea being that the material is exactly where it is wanted for strength/weight.

    The second design is one where merely the lugs are 3D printed, into which carbon fibre tubes are placed. This means that each frame can be made tailored to an individual customer in CAD (differing angles in the lugs to support different lengths of tubes). Since the geometry of the lugs can be complex, they interface with the inside of the CF tube as well as the outside.

    Renishaw is the only company to have its logo visible in an Apple promotional video for quite some time - at 4:58 in the official iPhone 5 video, you can see a a ruby-tipped CMM probe.

    It's not only Foxconn that use Renishaw, but Samsung and darn near everyone in the precision electronics and aerospace sectors use Renishaw kit.

    Not bad for a still privately owned company that grew out of a garage in the SW of England! You might have seen the owner's house in the last series of Sherlock (though he doesn't live there). It's occasionally opened to the public to raise money for charity, well worth a visit - and possibly a Geek's Guide to Britain article?)

    1. Tom Womack

      Renishaw is not privately-owned: FTSE listed (ticker RSW), a member of the FTSE250, no sign of an unusually major shareholding by directors. Not a bad company, one of the super-exporters whose stock has soared since Brexit

  2. Tony Haines

    "While other "big hope" concepts such as genetic engineering, nanotech and quantum physics have yet to make much of an impact, ..."


    Genetic engineering made *such* an impact that boycotts and legislation greatly restrict its use in many areas (particularly agriculture). Nevertheless, it is widely used in research, as well as various processes - particularly in more legally and socially permissive jurisdictions.

    Nanotechnology and quantum physics are both rather vague areas, and I suspect that projects involving them are just not as consumer-visible, or applications are generally discounted in a way that doesn't happen for 3D-printing.

    "As of August 21, 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies estimates that over 800 manufacturer-identified nanotech products are publicly available, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3–4 per week." - wikipedia;

    1. Anonymous Blowhard

      Actually, modern electronics is based on quantum mechanics

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      I stumbled across a medical report the other week which I at first thought had been written by sci-fi scribe William Gibson - but it's actually real:

      Here we report an accidental retinal burn with a femtosecond laser during laser-induced plasma formation in a process of nanoparticle production. -

      Of course nano particles are widely used in chemistry, medicine and engineering - they can just be very, very fine powders. As for nanoscale structures, TSMC and Intel are knocking on the gate (groan) of mass produced 10 mn transistors. 'Quantum dots' are already mass produced, and used in phone and TV displays.

    3. TitterYeNot

      ""...quantum physics are both rather vague areas, and I suspect that projects involving them are just not as consumer-visible""

      There are several technologies which depend on quantum physics, but they are very rarely seen in day-to-day life so very few people have heard of them.

      e.g. Semi-conductor electronics (i.e. all modern computer technology), LASERs (fibre optic comms, CDs, DVDs), atomic clocks (GPS), MRI Scanners...


      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        I've never seen any nanotechnology either... if only they could scale it up to the size of a cat, I'd have a better chance of spotting it!

        1. Nifty Silver badge

          "if only they could scale it up to the size of a cat, I'd have a better chance of spotting it!"

          it'd be on Youtube then

      2. Tony Haines

        // modern electronics ... fibre optic comms, CDs, DVDs, GPS, MRI Scanners ... LEDs (etc)

        Um, that's sort of my point. These are great examples which people just plain don't count.

        When something just works (for the most part) then people get used to it so readily that they don't question how it works. The consumer doesn't see the LED as anything other than a little light, for example.

        3D printing on the other hand... well, it's not yet so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable.

        People talk about the 3d-printed part of a technical project in a way they don't about established stuff. 3D printed stuff also gets high visibility because it works particularly well for custom and fashion consumer goods. These things are particularly noticable to the layman (and woman).

        I'm not against 3D printing. I've had my own designs printed through an online service. It's great.

        What I'm objecting to is Marcus's suggestion that it is 'making an impact' when the other technologies mentioned had failed to do so.

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Stuff that just works isn't called 'technology' - it's just called 'stuff'.

    4. Kristian Walsh

      Nanotech... not just Buckyballs. You need to create structures at nanometre scale to make MEMS (Micro-Electronic Mechanical Systems) devices, and these are in pretty much every mobile phone on sale today, as the accelerometer and "gyroscopic" sensors, and as high-dynamic-range microphones.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "...quantum physics are both rather vague areas, and I suspect that projects involving them are just not as consumer-visible"

    Those LEDs aren't visible? There's a lot of stuff which depends on quantum physics - it's just been around long enough to be taken for granted.

  4. Lyndon Hills 1

    Not unlike the rapid adoption of new ideas by the big financial institutions in London,

    which went so well....

  5. DropBear

    Yeah ok so if you're Makerbot refugee you can print out shower courtain rings at will, an if you're an ex game developer-turned-to-rockets-as-a-hobby you can fire 3D-printed rocket engines... but other than that, I never heard of 3D-printing making any inroads into anything that ISN'T one-offs. For which it works just fine (mostly, considering typical 3D-printed stuff, whether DIY or pro, tends to have a poorer finish and weaker structure than the typical Real Deal, with rather few exceptions as far as I know). So I suppose count me with that skeptical crowd...

    1. Alan Brown Silver badge


      Don't confuse low quality DIY and hobbyist 3d printers with the more expensive kit you can obtain.

      3D-printed aircraft parts are 3-20 times stronger than the parts they replace and usually come in at 40-70% lighter with far less time required to fabricate them.

      fab time is a big issue. It's possible to 3dprint a truck driveshaft that's lighter and stronger than a cast one, but it costs 20 times as much and takes 50 times longer than a cast one. That said, if you're at a frontline army base and you need a driveshaft it's faster and cheaper to print one than ship one out.

    2. juice

      For prototyping, low-volume or custom items, 3D printing is great, whether you're printing out a replacement part on a US Navy ship in the Atlantic, making a high-precision part for a jet engine or printing out some props for your latest cosplay outfit.

      In fact, prototyping is probably where 3D printing has made the greatest inroads and will continue to do so.

      For mass-production, it's not so great, as it's a slow and expensive process. I was at a maker's fair this weekend and someone was using a 3D printer to make little rocketship models; each one took 2-3 hours to complete.

      It'll be interesting to see how this improves as the technology matures - looking at the website for the HP Multi Jet Fusion, it's actually only claiming a 10x speedup against comparable 3D printers (i.e. ones with a six-figure price tag), which is still nowhere near fast enough for mass production.

      Then too, if you have used 3D printing to produce a proof-of-concept and decide to use a more traditional method for mass-production, you'll have to redesign your widget from scratch to account for differences in material strengths and stress points.

      Beyond this, some of my friends genuinely think that there's going to be a revolution of sorts, where every home will end up with a 3D printer sat in the corner; if you want a new item or something breaks, you'll just download the 3D model for it and set it printing.

      I just don't see this happening. Partly because non-technical people have enough issues with standard printers - I get regularly summoned to help relatives change ink cartridges or install drivers.

      Partly because I suspect there'll be issues with getting hold of the actual 3D models - as with cultural media (e.g. music, books, movies, etc), the people who make them will generally want to be paid for them, which means that there's likely to be a plethora of copy-protection mechanisms and formats.

      And partly for the same issue/reason as per above: you can't always replace a mass-produced item with a 3D printed model. 3D printed items can be stronger, but they can also be weaker, as the guys who scanned and printed out gun components found out (

      There's also the question about other physical properies (e.g. heat resistance, expansion/contraction when temperature changes occur) and tolerances - the Multi Jet Fusion claims to have an accuracy of 0.2mm, but only after sandblasting. whereas injection moulding and CNC routers are usually accurate to around 0.127mm

    3. xyz123

      Nothing except one-offs?

      Obviously you haven't seen how artificial hips are produced both on the NHS and in the US?

      You also might want to google: Sintered Titanium 3d printing, SpaceX, 3d printing chemicals, 3d printed houses, etc etc

      The entire concept of 3d printing is one-offs. Scale of process is no longer a barrier to entry. Customized items can be made as one-offs without immense effort and money. THIS is why big companies are terrified. They're staring death in the face and death is grinning with his one-off 3d Printed custom-fitted dentures....

  6. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "take weeks rather than months or years to build an aircraft, claims BAE Systems."


    One word


    Try decades.

    1. Steve Todd

      Re: "take weeks rather than months or years to build an aircraft, claims BAE Systems."

      You're confusing design with manufacture, and the f-35 was designed using more traditional methods. The bulkheads were originally machined from titanium blocks for example. The modern approach would be to create them from laser sintered titanium powder, which is a very much faster process.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: "take weeks rather than months or years to build an aircraft, claims BAE Systems."

        "You're confusing design with manufacture"

        And even more with the coding of the software. Are we there yet?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Failed Premise

    "Most products are made from a ["]subtractive["] process"

    This is incorrect; most products, at least those that are 'made', as opposed to harvested, such as fruit, vegetables, meat etc, are produced via additive processes. Never seen or even heard of things like automobiles, dish washers, watches, clothes, water wheels, rocking horses, space rockets, cricket bats, [...] being made by subtractive processes. In fact, even most statues that you're likely to see in the context of 'product' will have been made from several parts, shaped in molds, and then joined together.

    A quick look around my home revealed just two items that were made by subtractive processes, these being a wood rolling pin and a wood spatula. Everything else was made by additive processes or harvesting.

    1. Steve Todd

      Re: Failed Premise

      Your failure to understand how your home items were made is showing. Most were made from parts that were original cast or molded, then were machine finished with traditional subtractive methods. Your car for example has many cast parts that are then precision machined to their final shape. This saves money over machining them from a solid block, but costs rather more in tooling and setup costs and produces weaker parts.

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Failed Premise

      >A quick look around my home revealed just two items that were made by subtractive processes,

      Um, what are you wearing, LeeE? (Oh er!) Most clothing is made by cutting shapes from a woven rectangular sheet.

      Okay, I think I see the root of this misunderstanding (not your fault) - yes, most products are made by adding parts together, but many, many component parts are made by removing material - including some parts from all of the examples you listed.

      Subtractive processes include stamping shapes out of sheet metal (often combined with bending the metal in the same operation). Think of the metal chassis in old desktop PCs, car panels, cutlery, metal bowls, the tops of disposable cigarette lighters, coins, that sort of thing.

      Then we have a lot of subtractive processing of wood, for furniture - of which there will probably be a fair bit in your house. Turning, routing, milling, sanding, drilling, planing etc.

      I'd be hesitant to hazard a guess of percentage use of subtractive, moulded, additive processes used in everyday objects around us. If you were to say that most products that pass through our houses in the course of a year are moulded (food containers and other packaging) I'd say yes, that's plausible.

      Really though, 'Additive Manufacturing' is really just a convenient umbrella term for a range of process, because 'Rapid Prototyping' and '3D Printing' are often too narrow or inaccurate.

  8. Dave 126 Silver badge

    @Steve Todd

    I think there's a misunderstanding over terms here, and I don't want to blame anyone. LeeE is right that many products are made by assembling (adding) component parts. However, a huge number of parts are made using subtractive (wasting) processes, as you point out. :)

    Anyway, let's quit now before we get too deep into the merits of casting, forging and machining metal parts, and respective impacts upon grain structure and mechanical properties!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There's no misunderstanding here; the article refers to products, not component parts.

      But in any case, the examples that you and ST give aren't valid; my clothing does not consist of just 'shapes' cut from 'a woven rectangular sheet' (would you not describe weaving as additive? And don't forget the dyes). Until those 'shapes' are combined in an additive process they're still just 'shapes' and won't become a product (clothing, in this case) until they are combined (togas, turbans and the original design of kilt might qualify but I would guess even they require(d) the addition of some stitching along the hems to prevent the weave from unravelling). Similarly, a table leg can't be regarded as a product, unless you're a tablemaker, and furthermore, one who neither varnishes, polishes or otherwise seals their wooden products which, as a result, will then have a very short usable life.

      But if we follow the logic that a subtractive phase in the manufacture of a component part qualifies the the end product as being made by subtractive methods then it follows that all products must be the result of harvesting, without which you'd have nothing to process at all, whether it be additive or subtractive (and before anybody wastes time gobbing off about harvesting being subtractive the difference is that in harvesting the product is made from what is subtracted whereas in subtraction the product is the remainder (just to use a deliberately wonky maths allusion)).

      ST's response, by starting with a personal deprecation, qualifies itself as simple trolling and so is not worthy of a reply.

  9. Cuddles Silver badge


    "While other "big hope" concepts such as genetic engineering, nanotech and quantum physics have yet to make much of an impact"

    A significant portion of the world's food is now genetically engineered, and most modern technology is entirely reliant on nanotechnology and quantum physics - anything involving any kind of transistors or electronics requires both. Meanwhile 3D printing has had a useful but so far relatively minor impact on industrial prototyping.

    3D printing is certainly more than just the gimicky hobbyist scene that's all most people are aware of, but lets not pretend it's somehow more impactful than sciences and technologies which have fundamentally changed the entire face of modern civilisation.

  10. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Can we agree that the intro was just dreadful?

  11. fruitoftheloon

    The Devon 'FabLab'

    I have been using some of the excellent facilities in the Devon (Exeter) fablab for a little while now, which includes:

    - CNC router

    - 3D printers/replicators

    - 100w laser cutter/engraver

    - dye sub printer

    - fancy embroidery sewing machine

    - thermal press

    - vinyl cutter

    Not bad for a £100/year membership fee and a modest hourly charge depending on which bit of kit you are using...

    Were it not for facilities there, I wouldn't be able to get my (at the moment) very little business off of the ground.



  12. Mystic Megabyte

    Your everyday quantum device since 1938

    Which nicely illuminate my shed.

  13. Lotaresco

    Say what?

    "other "big hope" concepts such as genetic engineering, nanotech and quantum physics have yet to make much of an impact"

    What a consignment of geriatric shoe-menders.

    Genetic engineering is every day tech that has had huge impact on food production, pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical diagnostics, chemical engineering, waste treatment and even your weekly laundry. The problem with GE is that you don't see it because the products don't have big stickers on that say "Produced using man-made mutant power!!" or something. One thing that does make me actually LOL is the fact that food dorks constantly state their opposition to genetic engineering and... the advise people to eat Quorn which is made from re-cycled bacteria from the same family as tuberculosis and leprosy that have been genetically engineered for maximum growth.

    Nanotech has been around for much longer than people think. In medical diagnosis nanotech is used to build tiny magnetic particles coated with (genetically engineered) monoclonal antibodies which can be used to perform rapid testing for diseases or clinical chemistry results in hospitals. That technology has "only" been around since the mid 1970s.

    As to quantum physics, if it wasn't used practically it's doubtful that you would be typing your drivel into a computer.

    1. Tony Haines

      Re: Say what?

      "One thing that does make me actually LOL is the fact that food dorks constantly state their opposition to genetic engineering and... the advise people to eat Quorn which is made from re-cycled bacteria from the same family as tuberculosis and leprosy that have been genetically engineered for maximum growth."

      I don't disagree with the rest of your post (I actually said essentially the same, a bit higher up), but I'm pretty sure you're wrong on the Quorn thing.

      Quorn is reportedly made using Fusarium venenatum - which is a fungus rather than bacteria.

      Furthermore, while I don't know for a fact that it's not genetically engineered, I don't believe it to be - I've not seen such a statement on the packaging, which would be legally mandated. It's entirely possible (I would say likely) that it underwent a program of strain improvement, which would involve selecting for improved growth under the given conditions, possibly with some mutagenesis. This is so common as to be unremarkable, is not 'genetic engineering' as defined, and would not require package labelling.

      I do eat Quorn, but then I was also happy to eat genetically engineered cheese. (The milk clotting enzyme was extracted from a genetically engineered bacterium.)

      1. Lotaresco

        Re: Say what?

        I'd say that was my error based on working on unreliable memory. A long time ago I worked in the biotechnology/pharmaceutical business for a company that (among other things) made washing powder enzymes. We had a visiting lecturer from ICI explain how they had established their "Pruteen" fermenter at Billingham - I think I have confounded "mycoprotein" and "mycobacteria". However the comment about genetic engineering stands. One of the details I was fairly clear about was that they had used the same techniques that we did. To maximise the desirable outcome from a microorganism it is necessary to ensure that the organism spends less time doing what you don't want and more time producing product. This gets the catchy name of "driving carbon flux". It is done by disrupting the genes that lead to undesirable outcomes. Quorn inherited the strains from ICI and there was no legal requirement to document what had been done to the genome of organisms back in the late 70s.

        1. Tony Haines

          Re: Say what?

          I still think it's not genetically engineered. Having checked two different Quorn product packages last night, there's no mention of it being so. Furthermore, the Quorn website explicitly says not in its FAQs page:

          > "Are Quorn products non GMO?

          > "At Quorn, we’re passionate about providing meat free products with non-GMO ingredients. Mycoprotein, the key ingredient in Quorn products is not genetically modified. All other ingredients used are purchased to a specification which requires that they are not genetically modified."

          Furthermore - from my reading of various descriptions on the internet - while ICI was involved, this didn't involve passing on the organism. Rather it was a new isolate; ICI supplied fermenters and expertise in the process.

          However, what I think we have here is essentially a semantic difference. The process you referred to for improving carbon flux is what I described as strain improvement. In Europe, the distinction is that you can *select* for variants and even randomly mutagenise a creature and it is *not* classed as genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is where you have some idea about what you want to do - knock out a particular gene or put a new gene in, whatever - and go about that with directed techniques to make that change specifically.

          According to wikipedia, in America this may all be considered genetic modification and is lumped together. Presumably that means all dog breeders, say, and any gardener who produces a new variety of flower, etc., are genetic engineers - so the term is basically worthless. Which is fine for them since they don't seem to do scare stories about genetic engineering anyway.

  14. xyz123

    The more you know

    >> Most products are made from a "subtractive" process such as carving a marble statue. "Casting" is another method and is used to make chocolate bunnies, which is as old as the Greeks.

    I never knew the ancient Greeks made chocolate bunnies....<mind blown>

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