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'No request is too weird for us' - university invites businesses to explore the possibilities of 3D printing

PUBLISHED: 08:58 19 July 2019 | UPDATED: 09:10 19 July 2019

Face mask printed at the 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Ross Bentley

Face mask printed at the 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Ross Bentley

Archant

The Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre has taken delivery of two state-of-the-art 3D printers and wants to work with local companies to see how this cutting edge technology can help their business.

Tom Ranson in the 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Gregg BrownTom Ranson in the 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Gregg Brown

The arrival of state-of-the-art equipment at the University of Suffolk's IWIC (Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre) building, means the establishment has gone "straight to the front of the queue" in terms of the 3D-printing capabilities it can offer local businesses.

That's according to Tom Ranson, who is the 3D productivity and digital media technologist at the centre, who says only a handful of universities around the country have the level of 3D printing kit that now resides in Ipswich.

Resin

Mr Ranson proudly introduces me to Connie and Frank - the pet names for the two newly-arrived high specification industrial 3D printers.

Objects produced at the 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Ross BentleyObjects produced at the 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Ross Bentley

I learn that the large Stratasys Connex 3 (that's where the nickname Connie comes from) has 192 printing nozzles and that it works by spraying a fine layer of plastic resin across a surface, which is cured and hardened by ultra-violet light. Controlled by a computer, working to detailed designs, the process is repeated over and over again and the model is built up.

READ MORE: Suffolk businesses face up to the benefits of 3D printing

On the work desk next to me are some examples of the pieces already produced either by Connie or Frank, or some of the smaller 3D printers that already line the wall in the 3D Productivity Suite. I see face masks, wrench tools, a prosthetic hand and am fascinated by a plastic bike chain that was printed as a single part. My mind starts to consider the possibilities of this brave new world.

Smaller 3D printers in 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Ross BentleySmaller 3D printers in 3D Productivity Suite at the Ipswich Waterfront Innovation Centre Picture: Ross Bentley

Complicated

Mr Ranson tells me Connie can also print in different materials at the same time, so, for example, you can produce a television remote control device that has a hard plastic case and rubber buttons - all in one go.

"You can create anything as complicated as you want," he said.

"The model will be encased in support, so you can be as crazy as you want with a design and the model will not fall over.

3D printing can produce complicated items like this bicycle chain, produced as one part Picture: Ross Bentley3D printing can produce complicated items like this bicycle chain, produced as one part Picture: Ross Bentley

"If you dream up the model, we can produce it - we've been working with Ipswich Museum to produce copies of Anglo-Saxon coins and boat builders to produce parts for boats."

Mr Ranson added: "We can work in soft and hard plastics, as well as medical and dental grade plastics. The sky isn't even the limit - if you can dream it up, we can build it."

Grant

The arrival of Connie and Frank has been made possible through a capital grant of around £200,000 from Ipswich Borough Council, and has transformed the Suite into a location where companies who are involved in any form of product design, prototyping and manufacture are able to explore the strategic relevance of 3D printing to their business.

Tom says he is keen to work with local companise to explore how they can make 3D printing work for them Picture: Gregg BrownTom says he is keen to work with local companise to explore how they can make 3D printing work for them Picture: Gregg Brown

When it comes to producing prototype models, Mr Ranson tells me 3D printing can accelerate the process. He recalls working with one business on the design of a product, the size of a chess piece, that took 20 to 30 minutes to print.

He added: "We went through eight iterations and had perfected the design come the end of the day. That approach for traditional manufacturing could take months."

READ MORE: Water giants aim to bring 'the greatest minds' together for East Anglian innovation event

Mr Ranson says he and his team are on hand to offer support and guidance and simply to talk through the possibilities of 3D printing. He tells me a recent open evening attracted interested parties from industry sectors as diverse as marine and energy to medical and IT, and that he is offering an open invitation to other local companies to get in touch.

"If a business can no longer get a part, we can easily laser scan it and remake it," he continued.

"Or if a business just wants to see what we can do - they can come down and see and feel it, and get their imagination spinning out of control. No request is too weird for us."

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