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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Rapid Prototyping Journal, Volume 17, Issue 6
In the UK, we tend to know when a topic has made it into “the mainstream” when it is covered in depth by the BBC. This happened some time ago to additive manufacturing when it was featured on the “In Business” series on BBC Radio Four, one of the nation’s most listened to stations. This half-hour programme was accompanied by a feature on the BBC’s web site entitled “Will 3D printing revolutionise manufacturing?” (www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-14282091). Both the radio programme and the web site feature contained input from several knowledgeable sources including Loughborough University’s Additive Manufacturing Research Group, the Innovation Works at EADS and EOS. Listening to the interviews it was clear that all the contributors were trying to give a balanced view and were reluctant to make any outlandish claims about AM. They made it clear that the “AM revolution” will require a change in attitude and actions from many in the manufacturing industry, from designers to top-level managers. There was a hint of some slight sensationalisation from Peter Day, the presenter of the programme, for example, when he poses the question “Will 3D printing sound the death knell for mass production?” None of the contributors was suggesting that this was likely, even in the longer term, but I suppose it makes for “good listening”.
This coverage by the BBC and other leading media organisations is certainly raising public awareness of additive manufacturing (although 3D printing does seem to be the press’s preferred term). I have even heard of the term “rapid prototyper” being used in the popular TV series “The Big Bang Theory” to refer to a piece of engineering equipment that everyone at the university wanted to use. I believe that it is very important to raise the profile of AM but I hope it is not done at the cost of losing accuracy or building up unrealistic expectations. It could be argued that this has happened too often in the past with other technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and virtual reality to name a few. If company managers get their information from popular sources that do not convey the whole picture, including current limitations, they may be disappointed when they see what the technology can actually do. I think that the AM researcher community has a two-fold responsibility to make sure that this does not happen. First, we need to make sure that we give a balanced viewpoint when talking to the media and not get too carried away by our own enthusiasm, essential as this enthusiasm is. Second, we should try to do more to make our own research findings as accessible as possible to the general public. This could include writing the occasional paper for a technical or popular magazine rather than always concentrating on peer-reviewed journals. This is something that Professor Deon de Beer has done in South Africa (even writing regular articles for an airline’s in-flight magazine) and it has actually led to new research opportunities as a wider audience hear about the work he has been doing. Greater public awareness could also go some way to increasing the impact of our research, a crucial issue for any of us who are seeking public funding for our work.