Czech manufacturers look increasingly to 3D printing but barriers remain

Czech manufacturers look increasingly to 3D printing but barriers remain
South Moravian Innovation Centre in Brno.
By Nicholas Watson in Prague April 24, 2017

The Czech Republic is looking to become a centre for additive manufacturing in the Central and Eastern European region, with a survey released in April showing a majority of large Czech manufacturers have started using 3D printing technology or are planning to introduce it within the next five years. However, adoption still lags well behind Germany and experts warn there are numerous obstacles to overcome before it becomes more widespread in the region.

Additive manufacturing (AM) is distinct from traditional subtractive technologies such as injection moulding, metal forming and machining. The process makes objects from 3D model data, joining layer upon layer of plastic, synthetic resin, metal, ceramic, plaster and even in the future human tissue – crucially, without producing any waste. It is being hailed in some quarters as signalling the beginning of a fourth industrial revolution.

3D printers have actually been around for decades, but were huge, costly and slow machines used mostly by the automotive and aerospace industries to build prototypes, so until now they have had only a limited impact on people’s lives. However, with the rapid advances in digital scanners and software, 3D printers are now accessible tools that can design and create products that once required a factory, dozens of parts and lots of people to assemble. Prices for basic 3D desktop printers have already fallen below the €1,000 mark, making them accessible to individuals as well.

The worldwide 3D printing industry is expected to grow exponentially over the coming years, from $3.0bn in revenue in 2013 to more than $550bn by the year 2025, according to a McKinsey & Co study. Hardly a week goes by without an announcement about some product that has been made using 3D printing technology. In health care, dental crowns, braces, prosthetics and hearing aids have been printed; researchers are experimenting with the printing of human cells to create artificial skin, ears and kidneys, which would revolutionise transplants. Fashion designers, architects, artists and food technicians, to name a few, are experimenting with the possibilities offered by 3D printing. Shoes, clothing, building materials, household appliances –  the list is endless. Last year APWorks took a huge leap forward with its 3D-printed electric motorcycle, called the Light Rider; Nike is already selling the first athletic shoe using 3D-printed components.

According to a survey conducted by the Prague School of Economics and the consultancy EY released in April, 56% of the of the 71 prominent manufacturing companies in the Czech Republic they surveyed said they were using 3D printing technology or planned to do so in the near future in order to raise their competitiveness and reduce production costs. This is lower than major manufacturing centres like Germany next door, though it compares well globally; in a global survey conducted by EY of 900 companies, the percentage using or planning to use 3D technology was lower at 36%.

Other surveys are less supportive of the trend in CEE. A report earlier this year from technology analysts IDC, titled “IDC PeerScape: 3D Printing Practices for Manufacturing in Central and Eastern Europe”, estimated that actual adoption of AM technology is much lower than the general awareness of it and its benefits. “We estimate between 10-15% in the manufacturing sector according to our surveys,” Martin Kuban, senior research analyst at IDC, tells bne IntelliNews. “Also, the currently adopted use cases are mostly very basic as of now. Prototyping is by far the strongest one. Leading industries are automotive, aerospace & defence, and equipment & tool manufacturers.”

Heavy metal

One of the main barriers that industry players identify to wider adoption of AM technology in the Czech Republic and the whole CEE region is that 3D printing with metal in traditional parts engineering, where the greatest potential for 3D printing lies, is by far the most challenging area for AM. As such it requires the type of 3D printing technology that is not widely available and mostly found in the most advanced markets like the US and Germany.

“You have to process metal powders to receive a part whose physical and mechanical properties are close to the material of standard machining. That is why post-processing [the final heat treatment of the product in which midstream it gets the resulting physical, mechanical qualities] is very, very significant,” says Viktor Fiala, sales director in the Czech Republic for the UK firm Renishaw, which offers metal AM manufacturing technologies for industrial and healthcare applications.

Another problem is, of course, cost, which depends on the type of materials to be processed, whether the materials can be substituted or must remain the same, and the number of parts that need to be manufactured. The IDC research reveals that some CEE manufacturers have been able to reduce their initial investment by buying 3D printers from small local manufacturers – Czech 3D printing company Prusa Research is recognized as one of the leaders in producing 3D printers of its kind in its price range and has already sold tens of thousands of printers worldwide. However, most companies that require high-end printers designed for use in production are still large, often foreign, multinationals.

“You can’t just purchase five of these machines and start to print something – it’s completely the wrong approach,” says Fiala of Renishaw. “I think there exists a big problem in this field and that is if you would like to manufacture something with this additive manufacturing technology, you need a designer who is able to design the part, then optimise the production process for it – it is a much more complex process and that is why only big corporations are involved in this area because they are able to address the problems more systematically.”

It’s unsurprising, then, that large foreign companies are still the principal source of high-end AM technologies in the region. “We can confirm the inflow of AM technology know-how and experience from abroad from mother companies operating out of more mature markets,” says IDC’s Kuban.

The US conglomerate Honeywell has its Additive Manufacturing facility in the Czech city of Brno, which employs more than 1,800 engineers working in the areas of development for the Automatic Control Solutions and the Aerospace & Transportation Systems organisations.

In November, the US engineering group GE announced plans to build a new factory outside of Prague focused on the development and production of the world’s first Advanced Turboprop engine using 3D-printed components. The factory, which will double as GE Aviation’s first aircraft engine headquarters outside the US, will employ 500 people. It is scheduled to open in 2022.

GE and the Czech government say Czech universities such as the Czech Technical University (CTU) in Prague will be critical partners for the success of the project. And here lies another major problem for AM in the Czech Republic, which is that there is a lack of experts with the necessary technical ability and experience in the country and wider region. 

Talent pool

The Prague School of Economics/EY survey notes there is a limited amount of additive technology professionals in the labour market due in part to insufficient supply of relevant fields of study at technical schools and universities. 38% of the companies surveyed cited a lack of know-how as one of the main obstacles to the introduction of 3D printing.

“The Czech companies are looking for partners, for instance the product companies need young engineers who can design the parts and they need to be educated at the technical universities, and so these universities need to start completely new forms of studies,” says Renishaw’s Fiala, adding that CTU has opened a new department focused on metal AM, the Brno University of Technology has one focused on plastics AM, while the Technical University of Ostrava is preparing to open a new AM study program.

In April, the biggest digital laboratory in the Czech Republic opened its doors at the South Moravian Innovation Centre in Brno. Entrepreneurs and members of the public can sign up to use 3D printers and other cutting-edge technologies at Fab Lab Brno.

IDC’s Kuban says the “painpoint” of many CEE companies is that they are unable to expand the number of people with corresponding 3D experience, especially designers who can not only use 3D tools, but also “think 3D”.

“Unfortunately, educational institutions in CEE have not joined the 3D technology trend at its nascent phase. It will take schools at least another five years to close the gap by supplying graduates with digital/3D skills relevant to the CEE labour market,” he says. “Especially, technical schools have been responding with purchases of AM technology to give future engineers hands-on experience, which will be greatly valued by their future employers. In a next step, schools should focus on better accessibility of the AM technology to students. Some AM vendors, especially local ones, also actively support educational institutions, for instance, during our research we have found references to Y Soft Corporation, Zortrax or MCAE Systems that collaborate with schools to popularize AM.”

Even though many smaller local manufacturers are still being put off by the costs of acquiring equipment and the expense of training and hiring employees, while also worrying that 3D printing could harm their businesses through the process of reshoring, IDC insists that to avoid going down the AM route would be a mistake. “This approach could prove risky, or even disastrous, as competitive gaps in 3D printing experience will be difficult or impossible to close once market transformation is over. In short, the future of manufacturing will not favour those that forestall innovation,” says Kuban.