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HRD's pocket guide to... 3D printing

The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

Having gained widespread recognition in recent years (thanks in part perhaps to the technology becoming available for home use), 3D printing – or ‘additive manufacturing’ as it’s more correctly known – has actually been around since the 1980s.

It’s an automated process that makes physical objects from computer-programmed designs. It works by building up thin layers of material one at a time until the object is complete. 3D printing helps reduce manufacturing complexity and waste by simplifying part design, reducing the number of parts, and only using the exact resources needed for each object. Companies currently utilising the technology include GE, Boeing, Nike and Hasbro.

What do I need to know?

According to the 2017 State of 3D Printing report from online 3D manufacturing business Sculpteo, 3D printing technology is mainly used to accelerate product development (28%), offer customised products (16%) and increase production flexibility (13%). Even if your business isn’t currently using additive manufacturing it could be soon, with the same report finding that 90% of companies using 3D printing consider it a competitive advantage, and that 72% predict their spending on it will increase in 2018.

“Just about every sector is using it for prototyping. From packaging companies making perfume bottles, to car makers, aircraft engine manufacturers, medical device companies and architects,” says Phil Reeves, vice president of strategic consulting at 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys. “The sectors using it the most to print parts – not prototypes – are the aerospace and medical sectors.

“As the printers get quicker and drop in price, so the technology will be used more to manufacture automotive components, parts of consumer devices, sunglasses and homeware. 3D printing is a way of making complicated shapes with very little capital investment.”

Where can HR add value?

As with any new technology, HR must engage with the workforce early to ensure they’re both comfortable with its arrival and sufficiently trained in its use. “The need to engage with our workforce, and more importantly share our learning on this, is fundamental,” says Sally Austin, group HR director at construction and engineering company Costain. “UK employers need to work hard to constantly equip teams with new skills, particularly around innovation and technology as I can’t think of a single organisation where this isn’t a priority for the future.”

Boeing, for example, has developed a nine-week ‘Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production’ course, in partnership with MIT, for staff. “Implementing training early on in the adoption of new technologies can help empower employees to grow and perform better by giving them the knowledge and tools to excel,” explains Abhishek Katyal, Boeing additive manufacturing programme manager.

When upskilling the workforce it’s important not to forget leadership. “Preparing leadership to understand the possibilities as well as the threats that these technologies pose is a very urgent requirement,” says Toby Peyton-Jones, HR director at Siemens. “3D printing is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg of change that will be an opportunity for those who respond early, and a big danger for those who don’t think openly and often about what it means for their business.”

Anything else?

This ‘iceberg’ Peyton-Jones refers to is Industry 4.0: a group of interconnected technologies set to change the world. “It’s important leaders in both HR and beyond understand the wider disruption 3D printing is emblematic of,” he explains. “Related technologies like blockchain, big data, virtual reality, AI and robotics combine to form the vision for Industry 4.0, and open up completely new business models in which man and machines will co-exist and work together in a very different way.”