3D printing, where objects or designs are digitally scanned and reproduced in three dimensions, can be a tricky concept to grasp.

But at BT it’s fast–becoming a reality. The company is using 3D printing to turn innovative ideas from its engineers into items of practical use in the field.

Often compared to baking a sliced loaf backwards, making each slice separately and sticking them together to make the loaf, 3D printing is about to be exploited across BT. This is thanks to a newly established facility at Magna Park.

Imagination the only limit

David MacKenzie, head of supply chain operations at of BT Wholesale & Ventures, says: “3D printing may seem to be fanciful to many. But at BT we have seen how it can transform the manufacturing process from a series of time-consuming and expensive steps - producing a design, creating a prototype, tooling up machinery, and finally producing the item – into just one. This shortens the time it takes to get practical ideas off the drawing board and out into the field.”

He adds: “This new facility will enable us to harness the benefits of 3D printing across BT and has the potential to be applied to all sorts of applications, with the only limit being our imagination. It will help turn employees’ innovative, labour-saving ideas into reality at the press of a button.”

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Behind the scenes

The new facility is the culmination of a lot of work behind the scenes.

Matt Lawson, BT applied innovation director, whose role it is to drive innovation within BT, is a long-term convert of 3D printing. He was well-aware of the technology’s capabilities for the low-cost fast prototyping of tools, parts and so on, and can see how it could be applied within BT.

Along with his team, Matt was responsible for installing a 3D printer at the customer showcase at Adastral Park, BT’s research and development centre in Ipswich, with the goal of promoting the concept to across BT.

Acutely aware of 3D printing’s ability to capture the imagination, he saw how it could be used to encourage inspire BT engineers to come up with designs for new equipment so he pitched a proposal for BT Applied Innovation to run a new ideas scheme for Openreach.

It would ask front line engineers to sketch ideas for new kit to make their everyday lives easier and, to make it more interesting, print off the winning entries for them to be trialled in the field.

Huge potential

The idea was enthusiastically embraced by Openreach. In the course of his job, Andy Whale, Openreach chief engineer, had spoken to many engineers who had expressed widespread enthusiasm for some new, purpose-built, tools that could help them to become even more efficient.

Like Matt, he saw how 3D printing could provide the answer and put his weight behind the new ideas scheme.

The scheme generated a great response. Engineers sent their designs in on scraps of paper. BT Applied Innovation judged the entries, printed off the winners, and worked with them to develop their ideas further so they could be taken forward by Openreach.

The prototypes now being trialled in the field include:

  • A cable threading needle which makes it easier for engineers to add new circuits in a roadside cabinet without introducing new faults by snagging one of the multitude of wires. Shaped like a sabre tooth, it allows the engineer to simply curl round any obstructing wires, reducing faults.
  • A neck worn safety holder which allows engineers to wear a hand-held adaptor around their neck when climbing a pole, leaving their hands free to test the lines and to look down and see the screen thereby improving safety.
  • A vibrating bullet which makes it easier to deliver fibre into homes by creating vibrations as it travels through a duct to clear any debris out of the way of the delicate fibre’s path  

The baton for 3D printing was picked up by David MacKenzie who was instrumental in setting up a 3D capability in Magna Park.

Pivotal role

BT engineer, Alesha Richardson also played a pivotal role in helping to set up the new facility.

She developed a passion for 3D printing a few years ago, and realised it could help her solve a simple problem she was struggling with. During the hurly burly of work her ID card and key token would often get broken because her keys were attached to them. It was after yet another breakage when she had a eureka moment.

Because what she needed, of course, was a separate holder for her ID card and key token that she could wear round her neck and she could make one with a 3D printer.

[Read more: Ever wondered what a 3D printed house looks like?]

Alesha knew traditional manufacturing techniques would probably make it too expensive and time-consuming to produce and that 3D printing would provide a short-cut.

But she had one small problem. She didn’t have a 3D printer and couldn’t afford to buy one.

Resourcefully, Alesha built her own one at home, learning about the technology as she went along, and used it to print a new, more practical holder.

So when it came to finding someone to help run BT Wholesale & Venture’s new unit on a day-to-day basis, Alesha with her specialist expertise was the natural choice, and can pass on her extensive knowledge and skills to visitors.

New-found enthusiasm

This new facility, which is available to users across BT, will shortly be opened by Andy Whale and is expected to generate a similar enthusiasm across the company for 3D printing.

Says Alesha: “The opening of the 3D printing facility is a very proud moment for me. There is tremendous potential for the technology to be used within BT. The opening of a new 3D Resource Centre at Magna Park is the first step in this journey.”

“Now when someone comes up with a bright idea we’ll say give us your drawings and we’ll print it for you,” adds Alesha. “These are really exciting times." 

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