31 March 2017 9:14
Interview with an Expert: Professor Neil Hopkinson, Director of 3D Printing at Xaar
Professor Neil Hopkinson has been deeply involved in additive manufacturing since 1993, have worked and conducted research at the University of Sheffield, Loughborough University, De Montfort University, 3D Systems and the University of Nottingham. In January 2016, Neil was appointed Director of 3D Printing at Xaar — the world leader in industrial inkjet technology — in order to help broaden their 3D printing capabilities. Neil is the inventor of High Speed Sintering (HSS) — a new, highly efficient approach to AM that uses inkjet printheads and infrared heaters to print products from polymer powder materials.
Neil was kind enough to sit down with RP Platform to discuss his work in additive manufacturing, the most exciting developments in recent years, and how he sees the technology evolving in the future.
RP Platform: How did your academic interest in additive manufacturing originally develop?
Neil: I studied Manufacturing Engineering and Operations management at The University of Nottingham; in my final year of study (1992/3) I heard about a technology area known as “Rapid Prototyping” – it was love at first sight! I could see the potential as a game changer immediately.
What have been the most significant developments in AM since you published your first book on the subject?
Neil: There are two: The commercial adoption of:
- The “print and sinter” approach in polymer powder bed systems
- Continuous DLP-enabled photo-curing
These are proving to be game-changing moments in the industry.
RP Platform: What do you see as the principle advantages of inkjet-based AM compared to other methods?
Neil: Scalability. Scalability. Scalability. I am a manufacturing engineering with an ambition to make AM a standard volume manufacturing process, or set of processes, to make everyday products; I joined Xaar because industrial grade inkjet technology has emerged as the clear platform to enable the high volume dream to become reality. Inkjet also has the advantage of enabling a range of process and end-use materials including thermoplastics, thermosets and metals.
RP Platform: What are the primary challenges for companies exploring AM as a production tool for the first time?
Neil: Finding the right technology; there is a bewildering range of processes out there and new entrants usually require a lot of help to objectively assess which approaches are best for them.
RP Platform: At the other end of the spectrum, what are the key opportunities AM offers for the industrial sector that you envisage companies exploring further?
AM is emerging as a credible approach for production including volume production – this opens up a range of profound opportunities for adopters of the technology. The opportunities tend to be very specific to certain industries/products but tend to be based on elimination of tooling from production – this allows:
- New design freedoms including lightweight parts (good for aerospace/automotive)
- Parts with improved performance (good for sports and leisure)
- Personalised products (good for healthcare)
- Quick response/differentiated products (good for fast moving consumer goods/toys)
RP Platform: How do you see AM evolving in the near future? What are the key issues that you feel need to be addressed for 3D printing technology to reach the next stage in its evolution?
Neil: We are going to see a very quick increase in use of the process for volume production. The technology is largely there; issues that need to be addressed include healthy competition in the supply chain and implementation of manufacturing best practice when employing the processes for volume production.