Adopting Additive Manufacturing: Skills Shortage in 3D Printing Leaves Many Wondering How to Educate, Upskill, Fill Jobs


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3D printing labs such as that at the University of Nottingham focus on skills and research

Driving a successful industry is a successful workforce; that workforce, though, has to come from somewhere. In terms of additive manufacturing, lately we’ve been seeing an increasing call toward the importance of education, skills, and training as the industry advances beyond its infancy. This call was loud and clear last week in Nottingham, as the International Conference on Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing welcomed a variety of high-caliber industry participants who see, from the ground, the absolute and rising need for more skilled employees across the additive manufacturing industry. At an event geared toward top-notch researchers and great minds in 3D printing, the lack of a strong enough applicant pool wasn’t cause for complaint so much as a call to action: yes, there is a problem; how do we address it?

The skills gap in additive manufacturing is a challenge at present, and the first of the speakers at the AM Conference to discuss the matter was indeed the first speaker on the pre-conference agenda during the Industrial Realities of Additive Manufacturing session. Dr. Phil Reeves of Stratasys Expert Services addressed a few industry bugbears in naming the five “usual suspects” among barriers to AM adoption; as he was speaking from the perspective of a hardware manufacturer, these suspects all related to physical properties in 3D printing (accuracy, build speed, part size, part cost, mechanical property). Before even mentioning these, though, he had turned to one of the biggest problems that has held back adoption: misinformation circulated via hype. Just a few years ago, popular media took off with the idea of 3D printing as a magical, space-age solve-all that could create something from nothing at the push of a button, and the industry is still recovering from the damage done. He pointed to the media promises, particularly high circa 2012-2015, of “revolutionizing” technology, and then stepped back into the reality in 2017, which he described as a bit more conservative than previous projections. We’re early yet in this ‘revolution,’ he noted.

Following Dr. Reeves to the stage was Dr. David Brackett, Technology Manager, AM, National Centre for AM, Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), who spoke to several of the challenges and pitfalls of adopting additive manufacturing. Key among these was that of staffing:

“If you’re going to start additive, you need a staff to work on your machines,” he said. “We’re seeing this such as with Alexander Daniels Global’s ‘AM War for Talent’; there’s a limited resource pool. For a suitably trained staff, we need more training programs and apprenticeships… We need a staff to understand these things and not try to do interesting things. We need better training programs so there’s enough engineers coming through to support the need. MTC has a learning program to support this through AMTC, the training centre.”

He pointed to a pilot for next year through the ADMIRE Project, which has goals in keeping with the MTC’s initiative to bridge the gab between industry and academia, the so-called ‘valley of death’ therein that needs to be bridged. “Production with AM isn’t the same as research,” Dr. Brackett explained, noting the need for understanding in differences, applications, and training. The ADMIRE Project is developing an AM-centered master’s degree with a stated goal keeping these areas in focus:

“To address the widely-identified death-valley among academic and industrial world, establishing a solid relationship among enterprises working in the AM supply chain, research centres and universities. At the same time, it is intended to respond to an urgent industrial need: the qualification of Additive Manufacturing workforce. Together universities, companies and students will design a Metal AM Master degree according to level 7 of the European Qualification Framework.”

The relationship here among organizations working throughout operations spanning additive manufacturing is key to its continuing development as those in the industry look toward increasing its presence. John Williams, UK Sales Manager for Materialise, put it succinctly in his presentation geared toward the successful adoption of additive manufacturing into a business: “This is as much of a people process as it is a technology process.” He addressed what Materialise has discovered regarding adoption, viewed through the lens of experience.

“We’re taking what we know about the tangible steps you need to be aware of when adopting additive manufacturing into your business, based on our experience of implementing AM across Europe and in the UK,” he said. “The interplay between each part of the ecosystem must be considered when adopting AM. Partner with a supplier who can help you navigate through the AM ecosystem, or make a serious plan of it if you’re planning to go it alone.”

That advice for the business side goes hand in hand with his observations for the implementation of the technology:

“You cannot have good production without understanding the design process for AM; you cannot achieve good part design without understanding of production cycle for AM. A good understanding for both sides of this area will give you the best chance for the successful adoption of AM.”

Partnering with established entities with a working understanding of the technology is often a gateway into the successful use of additive manufacturing in an existing business. As Ian Halliday, CEO of 3D RPD Ltd., noted, it’s important to manage expectations — and to this end, it’s necessary to remember that additive is really just another technology in manufacturing. Touching as well on the move to create realistic expectations was Sophie Jones, General Manager of Added Scientific, the technical consultancy behind the AM Conference, and a spinoff of the University of Nottingham. While she focused primarily on the additive manufacturing industry in the UK, many of the lessons she learned from thorough interviews with six companies that had adopted the technology are universal.

“As a country, how can we manage those risks and encourage growth?” she put to the crowd. Pointing to the data-driven research undertaken by Added Scientific, she explained, “The AM market is perceived as high risk. It is seen as unproven and unestablished; there is a need to educate customers…. Educating the customer is a key part of the strategy for Attenborough Dental. It’s really interesting that it’s falling to the manufacturer to get the customer to the point where they’re using the technology. Customers need to be educated in AM: this drives sales, minimizes overhead. … Skills are in short supply. Companies taking it upon themselves to create training programs in-house because the skills aren’t out there; e.g., HiETA training book.”

“Recruiting skilled employees was a major problem / Companies are resigned to training staff in-house / There is a lot of interest in apprenticeships in AM”

Of course, while companies have often been undertaking training themselves in the wild west of additive manufacturing, it isn’t wholly on their shoulders — and as time passes and the industry continues to grow, systematic education and skills-building will become more institutionalized. After all, as several experts pointed out, additive is a big part of the future of manufacturing:

If you can’t do additive manufacturing very soon you won’t be able to do high-value manufacturing,” said Robin Wilson of Innovate UK.

Additive manufacturing is vital for high-volume manufacturing, for manufacturing in general,” said Rob Scudamore of the AM National Strategy Committee.

As initiatives such as the AM National Strategy Committee look to the future of manufacturing in which additive is pegged to play such a major role, recommendations are beginning to arise. Scudamore shared several of these with AM Conference attendees, presented as including:

  1. Define AM skills requirements and design appropriate delivery mechanisms for current and future workforce, from apprenticeships through to vocational training
  2. Expand on existing KTN SIG activity to build and connect AM industrial community
  3. Run an AM awareness campaign to accelerate industrial exploitation in short medium and long term
  4. Devise a programme to pump-prime AM industrial training programmes
  5. Fund an AM Standards Development Exercise, covering all relevant elements, to support industrial
  6. Develop NDT and Mechanical Testing processes suitable for AM to enable ‘fit for purpose’ evaluation.
  7. Collation and publication of a study of best practice in AM for industry covering all relevant technical elements. Creation of online tools to educate potential users
  8. Map UK AM supply chain capability and capacity
  9. C R and D and other programmes to develop equipment capability with a view to increasing productivity, process stability and other areas
  10. Clarify digital mfg-related licensing, payment methods, design and collaboration
  11. Fund an AM related product liability definition and collaborative action programme
  12. Design for AM study producing guidelines, best practice and appropriate accreditation.
  13. Fund a programme to support DfAM including software development
  14. A detailed finance study is needed to provide with recommendations regarding business model justifications
  15. Develop links to all aspects of the digital connecting with the IDR and following through any recommendations in both the digital and real world

The steps laid out echo Scudamore’s call to action for adoption overall:

Industry needs to lead, not just academia, and this needs to be a wider thing; we need wide-industry consultation, not just the main players, not just the ones who make the most noise, needs to be industrial community feel,” he said.

There’s certainly yet a great deal of work ahead for adopting additive manufacturing on a broader scale, both across the UK and globally. Specifically addressing the barriers to adoption regarding skills/education was Birmingham City University‘s Frank Cooper, who broke down three educational levels that need to be addressed in bridging the skills, education, and training gap in additive manufacturing:

  • Schools with students 8 to 18 years old
  • Higher (degree level) education
  • Vocal and professional learning, apprentices, continuing professional development, upskilling of the existing workforce

It is the last of these three sectors, Cooper noted, that requires the most attention — and there does also need to be a coordination of strategy across the three levels. In particular what needs to be addressed are issues such as capturing the needs of industry and matching the teaching to meet those needs; effective teaching of a constantly evolving subject, especially as knowledge is often developed in hidden pockets and silos; building an awareness of additive manufacturing in the educational sector; and addressing a major question: who’s going to teach the teachers?

While those issues are big enough on their own, Cooper additionally pointed out potential barriers yet in the way of educational efforts, including:

  • Huge breadth of AM technologies
  • Collation of current provisions already available
  • A lack of enough suitable candidates currently available
  • Must be informed by all the sectors within the AM strategy thematic groups

“Skills remain a major part of the proposed UK AM strategy,” he said,” but a smaller part of the ISCF [Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund] bid. … We desperately need a single point of contact where people know they can get the information they need, whether regarding education or process.”

He pointed as well to the need for an ISCF review identifying skill gaps that will need to define AM skills requirements as well as appropriate delivery mechanisms. His recommendation, which echoed around the conference, was that the government initially provide support as an additive manufacturing industry and community build up, subsidizing training programs until long-term sustainable solutions can be upheld within the industry itself.

As the industry continues to grow, it’s no wonder so many presenters on the AM Conference agenda spoke to the need for expanding a skilled workforce through well-developed education and training. The above-mentioned examples all spoke on the pre-conference day, and naturally skills came up throughout the conference proper throughout the next two days as well. A large focus on education reemerged on the final day of the event with Tim Minshall, head of the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, who discussed the the development of an AM-capable workforce for the UK.

“It’s not a big thing,” Minshall said of skills/education in additive manufacturing, “it’s THE big thing.”

To show what a big thing skills are, Minshall made them a big thing in his presentation

He looked toward the skills necessary for workers on a shop floor as well as in R&D, and how to ensure the required skills are developed. These, he said, come about not through sheer force of will in having more PhD students studying additive; “it’s about more throughout the whole system.” In addressing the need for training across both full-time education and the active existing workforce, Minshall explained differences in approaches to the two areas, and noted that the good news in developing a new skill set surrounding a manufacturing method is “we’ve done this before.”

“You could say it’s just another production technology,” he said. “Robots, CNC, any production engineering scene will have people using robots, using CNC, we’ve developed skills around these two and the world didn’t collapse. It’s not a ridiculously impossible task.”

Illustrating the flow from a technology to the skills to use it, Minshall presented a progression chart:

Technology → knowledge → standards → capability → delivery → skills

As we see the industry continue to walk that (often non-linear) line toward the development of a skilled workforce, it is heartening to bear in mind that there is work being done on these fronts and that education is at the fore of a great deal of activity and research. It’s clear that throughout the whole of the potential workforce, from those participating now to schoolchildren just learning about technology for the first time, there is a call to action: we need more access, more education, more training, more community-developed skills development.

Do you have any thoughts on how to address the additive manufacturing skills gap? Share your thoughts in the 3D Printing Skills forum at

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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