It will replace your lost tiddlywinks; it will bring obsolete electrical items back to life; it will build houses; it will solve the organ donation problem; it will feed the hungry; it will reduce waste and carbon emissions, and help save the planet. And it will make pigs fly.
Such were the claims made for 3D printing when it first hit the headlines in the 1980s that it was easy for deriders to laugh at the plastic bits of this and that coming out of the machines and dismiss it as a gimmick. The suggestion that a technology that was churning out tat would emerge as a world-changer appeared ludicrous – yet 30 years on 3D printing has achieved most of the above, and is on its way to sorting out the rest – with the exception, maybe, of pigs’ wings.
Now that the powder (in which form the raw materials are used) has settled, 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), has taken its place alongside AI and big data as one of the most transformative technologies of our age. There is a 3D-printed eight-metre concrete bridge in the Netherlands; a functional, 3D-printed 250-square-metre open-plan office in Dubai; and 3D-printed food in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Barcelona.
In 2017, Frost & Sullivan awarded 3D-printing experts Norsk Titanium the Europe Technology Innovation Award for its Rapid Plasma Deposition (RPD) technology, which allows applications across sectors for the production of complex, high-strength products. Norsk’s RPD technology has allowed it to become a qualified supplier of structural titanium 3D parts for the aerospace industry.
There are also scientists racing to achieve the feat of printing living human tissue. This is still at the experimental stage but San Diego-based Organovo has managed to create parts of kidneys, lungs and heart muscle, while other labs have produced ears, noses and cartilage.
While pursuing those goals – now more science fact than fiction – in just 40 years, the process of building components in layers directly from 3D CAD files, without long production lines, without multiple suppliers and components, and without costly labour and tools, has been adopted by industry and is driving efficiency, improving accuracy and functionality, and increasing flexibility in every sector, from aerospace and defence to medical and pharmaceutical.
Dr Phil Reeves, vice-president of Stratasys Strategic Consulting, a leader in 3D printing and additive materials and services, says the applications of 3D printing are limitless. “People think they’re not using AM products, but I’m willing to stake my life they are. Of course publicity is given to products that stretch the boundaries of science, medicine, engineering and ethics – human tissue, food, concept cars, guns – but the fact is 3D-printed items are everywhere. Stratasys and other 3D print businesses are producing components for planes, trains and cars; they’re making hearing aids, glasses and dental aligners; they’re being used by architects, interior designers and inventors to make scale models and prototypes; they’re enabling surgeons to plan complicated surgery on AM replicas.”
The technology will become more integrated as consumer reality catches up with industry hype, says Reeves, and as it becomes more able to print from a greater range of raw materials than the commonly used plastic, metal, ceramic, cement and glass.
While the beauty of 3D printing is that it can, in theory, produce just about anything in one print – even objects with hinges, moving parts and wheels – domestic use is unlikely to go much beyond the creation of games pieces, cups, toys, kitchen tools and the like because sophistication and size push up the price and dimensions of the printer. Where it really shines, therefore, is in industry. The layer-by-layer printing technique has many advantages over traditional production, allowing for the creation of geometrically complex items. This can drastically reduce production time and eliminate supply chains because components that were previously made from many parts can be made as a whole by one machine. And it can also bring manufacturing to the proprietor’s door – anything can be printed anywhere – resulting in close to zero waste.
Other key benefits, says Reeves, are optimisation and personalisation. “To give you a crude illustration, say you wanted to replace a part in an airplane engine. If you did it through traditional methods, you might start with a metal ingot, cutting and milling it until you were satisfied. You’d end up with a lot of waste and a product that was good enough, but not perfect, and you’d need to be sure that you were going to make it in sufficient quantities to justify the expense. But if you 3D-printed it, your finished product would be a precise and optimal fit, constructed from data derived from hundreds of images and scans. You’d have no waste because first, you’re constructing your component from scratch, particle by particle, slice by slice from the bottom up rather than subtracting it out of a solid lump of metal. Second, you can stop printing at the optimum point and third you can collect and re-use surplus raw material. And you can print as many or as few as you need. That’s why at the start, 3D-printing was a gift to inventors using it for prototypes. But industry has gone beyond that now and has incorporated it for production as well as prototyping.”
There is huge potential, adds Reeves, which is why 3D is an attractive investment: Porsche, Microsoft and Siemens have poured $30m each into 3D-printing startup Markforged, while GE has spent a colossal $1.5bn on the technology.
“It’s easy for multinationals to make the investment and to reap the benefits. The sticking point at present is that while there are huge cost-savings to be made, once you’ve factored in buying or leasing new machinery, changing your raw materials and perhaps even your product design, the return on investment remains some years down the line and that’s a major stumbling block for many businesses.”
However, companies that have added 3D printing to their existing manufacturing process are reporting considerable benefits. CFM International’s Leap engine, which uses much lighter 3D printed plastic and hollowed out parts instead of aluminium, is saving millions in fuel. Among Stratasys’s own clients, Schneider Electric is seeing delivery time and cost reductions of up to 90%; surgical eye equipment maker Nidek has cut prototyping costs by 75% and development cycles by 50%; and rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance has slashed the part cost of a component used in one of its rockets by 50%.
Ralf Carlström, co-chairman of the European Additive Manufacturing Group and CEO of Digital Metal, is in no doubt that the potential for 3D printing hasn't been realised. “The technology will prove much bigger than even we who are at the vanguard can foresee. I have been working within the industry for five years and I still find it staggering to see what can be produced and where we have got to in such a short timeframe.”
Digital Metal has built a printer that is making the impossible possible, creating intricate metal items with medical-grade smoothness, moving parts within the tiniest of objects, tubes within tubes, products that can be hollow or meshed with holes of variable diameters.
Like Reeves, Carlström sees the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of AM. “It reduces costs, is hugely resource efficient and environmentally beneficial, but what most excites me is the sheer scope of what it can do. We have watchmakers, dentists, jewellers, aviation specialists, all using our technology to achieve a degree of accuracy, complexity and design freedom they never thought possible. AM also opens up the way for cost-effective mass customisation of all sorts of products, including dental and medical devices, and that is something that Digital Metal is investing heavily in right now. We want to bring 100% tailor-made products to market. Clearly we have the technology – the challenge is finding a way of making it affordable.”
Customised products are just the start for medicine and pharmaceuticals with bespoke hearing and orthodontic aids printed from scans of patients’ ears or teeth. Surgeons are replacing damaged joints and cartilage with 3D-printed replicas and printing prosthetics. In India, surgeons treating a patient with life-threatening spinal problems replaced three of her vertebrae with a 3D-printed titanium implant – and doctors operating on young babies have used bio-printed heart models to plan precisely how and where to cut on the reconstructions, reducing the time in theatre by 50% and leading to better outcomes.
In Vancouver, Aspect Biosystems is striving to build living human tissue. “Our ultimate vision,” says Tamer Mohamed, president and CEO, “is to enable the creation of the most complex of living tissues and organs that we could transplant into the body to replace damaged or diseased parts. Bioprinted tissues are being used for developing drugs and moving us away from animal testing.”
Aspect’s Lab-on-a-Printer technology enables the bio-fabrication of complex, heterogeneous 3D tissue using microfluidic printheads that generate cell-rich biological fibres. It has had considerable success in partnership with global companies including Johnson & Johnson in producing personalised meniscus knee implants.
“Damage to the meniscus cartilage is one of the most common knee injuries and unfortunately the tissue has poor healing properties,” says Mohamed. “The meniscus tissue is one of our first transplantable tissue applications. The creation of larger tissues remains a challenge, but with scientific and technological advancement, it’s a future we’re quickly moving towards.”
A perfect fit
If you’d like your own 3D printed item, there are many companies that will do the job for you. You can choose from thousands of existing designs, or even submit your own CAD file for production.
You can also enjoy tailor-made earphone perfection. Snugs, which opened its first booth in Selfridges but has plans to roll out more within the next two years, will scan your ears and provide you with perfectly fitting earphones that will stay in whether you’re sprinting, skiing, or surfing. CEO Paul Jobin, a keen skier, had the idea on the slopes. “I love music and sports, and I couldn’t find earphones that would stay put. So I had some made for me and my son. And the idea took off from there.”
Ear canals are unique, so it stands to reason that one size is definitely not going to fit all. The Snugs range, which includes wireless and work protection models, says Jobin, is a piece of affordable luxury that can be delivered to a customer within 10 days. And if you can’t get to London, the company will recommend an audio specialist who will scan your ears so that you can order online.