Five years ago, 3D printing was hailed as a technology that would fundamentally transform the way that most things are made: the hype cycle was in full gear. Breathless columns were written about a world where Star Trek-style replicators would be in every home, and no less a figure than former US President Barack Obama claimed that 3D printing would change manufacturing forever.
Fast-forward a few years and, while 3D printing has advanced rapidly, many companies still aren’t sure whether they should use it, how they should use it and what skills they need to use it effectively.
Tim Minshall, the Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation and Head of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), likes to use the example of 3D printing to illustrate the challenge that the East of England – and the UK at large – has with skills. With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), he has been studying the potential impact of 3D printing on companies of all sizes, including some in the local region.
When a new technology is developed, among the first questions often asked are: how many jobs will it create as new business opportunities are realised, and how many people need to be trained to capture these opportunities? But according to Minshall, when it comes to acquiring the right skills to best exploit new technologies, those are the wrong questions.