Top 5 industries embracing 3D printing

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3D printing hits its inflection point this year. While the technology has been around since the ‘80’s, recent advances in technology and materials science, particularly around 3D printing of metals, have given it life outside of niche and consumer markets.

The technology is becoming cheaper, faster and more robust. Inks are becoming more flexible and affordable, as new innovations reach market.

Adoption is accelerating as new processes and implementations energize the market. Beyond 3D printing of metal (itself a huge step), Oregon State University researchers recently revealed a technology they say may make it possible to print stretchable electronic devices, bendable displays – even soft robots.

Some believe the industry has reached its breakout iPhone moment. Context expects 52 percent growth in printer sales in 2018; IDC predicts a $20 billion industry by 2021; IDTechEx a $28 billion industry by 2028. We are seeing 3D technology impact multiple markets. Here are five examples:

Healthcare

Government support means innovation in health implementations for 3D is on the fast track. The global market for medical devices will reach $2.3 billion by 2020 (Wise Guy Research). South Korea is spending $1.2 million on development of 3D printed medical devices this year – the investment reflects a trend in which single-use personalized printed surgical tools are seeing use.

Surgeons use 3D printing to help plan for complex operations, including one recent case in which an adult kidney was transplanted into a small child.

Health professionals in orthopedics, maxillofacial surgery and implants use 3D printing to create bespoke devices designed for patient need. (For example, Silou Elle uses the tech to create customized bras for post-surgical breast cancer patients.) Stratasys is working with Dynaflex and Ortoplus to develop a large-scale 3D printed production process for aligner molds.

The holy grail will be 3D printing of new body parts. A new elastic biodegradable hydrogel developed at the University of Texas may in future be used to print human tissue, such as skin, muscles and other tissues.

Flight and space exploration

NASA uses 3D printing for multiple tasks, from printed rocket engine components to small, 3D-printed cube-shaped satellites. Its next-generation Orion spacecraft (destined to take passengers to Mars) will use over 100 3D printed parts, created from a tough space-capable material.

Most recently, the agency created a 3D-printed copper combustion chamber, aiming to print a complete rocket engine in future. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) is developing substances created from Moon rock to print structures and Tools.

Aerospace and automotive

Boeing and Rolls-Royce recently invested $37 million in UK aerospace company Reaction Engines which is developing a 3D printed engine.

Russia is also using additive manufacturing for its next-generation jet engine, the Aviadvigatel PD-35. Boeing is also working with DARPA and others to develop 3D printing solutions and standards for aircraft.

Auto manufacturers, including General Motors, use 3D printing for car parts, while GKN is developing new metallic dust for industrial use. On sea as on land, the US Navy expects to have almost 1,000 approved 3D printed components for use across its fleet by the end of 2018.

Industry 4.0

Research and Markets believes industrial 3D printing will become a $5.6 billion market by 2023, driven by the evolution of industrial applications beyond simple prototype production, such as component manufacture and tooling. Work is taking place worldwide to develop printed moulds and other industrial deployments.

There’s opportunities for single-use and unique component design, particularly across consumer markets: French domestic appliance manufacturers SEB and Boulanger use the technology for on-demand printing of spare parts.

New classes of consumer goods are also possible. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have used an inexpensive 3D printer to produce flat items that fold themselves into predetermined shapes when heated – will common household objects in future be created and distributed as flat items?

Construction

3D printed homes may appear soon. Apis-Cor in 2017 3D-printed a complete home in 24-hours; this followed a 2016 watermark when HuaShang Tengda printed a two-storey home in six weeks. 

At SXSW, Silicon Valley’s New Story demonstrated a system that can print a house in under a day for less than $4,000. In Holland, DUS Architects created KamerMaker, a giant 3D printer that prints a home using recycled materials.

This evolution meets real need: McKinsey recently claimed one-third of city dwellers will be unable to afford homes by 2025 – the Apis-Cor home cost just $10,000.

Construction isn’t just about houses – MX3D’s 3D-printed steel bridge is scheduled for final assembly in Amsterdam’s De Wallen district next year, while a partially-3D printed concrete bridge is already installed in Gemert, Holland.

The implication of all this rapidly-accelerating activity means CIOs must now think about how 3D printing will in future transform their industry.

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.