x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

3D printers head out of this world

If 3D printing takes off based on the European Space Agency's plans, the results will literally be out of this world.

This Is Me, a company in Dubai, uses 3D printing to create life-like miniature likenesses of its customers. Antonie Robertson / The National
This Is Me, a company in Dubai, uses 3D printing to create life-like miniature likenesses of its customers. Antonie Robertson / The National

If 3D printing takes off based on the European Space Agency's plans, the results will literally be out of this world.

The agency is testing 3D printers to make an entire building. Some of the materials it plans to use? Lunar soil from the Moon.

"Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures," Laurent Pambagulan, who is heading the project for the ESA, said in a statement a month ago. "Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat."

For its testing phase, the ESA has partnered with Foster and Partners, a global architecture firm with an office in Abu Dhabi. This company has already designed a domed-shaped structure with a cellular wall that is meant to withstand radiation and micrometeoroids while protecting astronauts from space-specific dangers.

The lunar base itself would first be transported to the Moon by space rocket, where it would get unfolded. A dome would then inflate around it and become covered by a protective shell, which is the part a robot-operated 3D printer would mould.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, 3D printers are still alien to many consumers.

That is because businesses primarily use the technology these days, typically by taking a computer-based drawing then adding materials like plastic resin or certain powders into a printer. The machine then creates a toy, pair of shoes or models of different consumer electronic devices, for example.

BlackBerry, for one, uses a 3D printer to produce prototypes of new smartphones, while some jewellers employ theirs to make moulds for forming gold necklaces or rings.

Analysts say engineering and construction firms, as well as companies in the power tools market, are also increasingly relying on this kind of gadgetry for prototyping and manufacturing industrial parts.

Still, 3D printer sales last year were forecasted to generate less than US$200 million (Dh734.6m) globally, according to the consultancy Deloitte.

Adoption rates among businesses from the Middle East, Asia and Europe were relatively similar last year at around 10 per cent, compared with roughly 15 per cent in North America, according to a survey conducted by the market research firm Gartner at one of its symposiums. Overall, those figures have roughly quadrupled from 2009.

While each commercial printer typically costs between $2,000 and $20,000, some now start for as low as $1,000. "With that price point, you can definitely use a desktop printer on every engineer's desk, or certainly in small work groups," says Pete Basiliere, a research director from Gartner who has written market analysis on 3D printers.

But there are still plenty of hurdles for makers of 3D printers.

Most models are useful for building highly customised items, "but they do not scale well beyond 10 items," Deloitte warns.

Many machines are also unable to produce a blend of different colours, limiting their universal appeal. Some can only produce two, for instance, and cannot combine red and blue to make purple.

In the UAE, some companies with financial stakes in this market have banded together to form the 3D Printing Innovation Alliance to promote awareness about their technology among both businesses and consumers throughout the GCC.

"Manufacturing is not yet a major industrial sector in the GCC, where 3D printing is a very important tool with a lot of potential," says Lothar Hohmann, the managing director of Precise, which is based in Dubai and part of the industry alliance.

"At the moment very few people know about 3D printing and its potential in this part of the world, which means there is not yet a lot of demand," he adds. "It is, however, growing."

Evan Hardie, a senior analyst at IDC Canada, noted last month on his blog that a lack of suitable real-world uses for a 3D printer at home could be the "potential Achilles' heel" within this sector. Yet he and other analysts have also noted there are new areas where 3D printers are starting to impact consumers and could garner a larger share of revenue in the future.

Nokia, for example, released a free kit online this year with 3D templates and documents that would help people to create their own collection of removable, rugged shells to protect a Lumia 820 smartphone from bumps and dust.

The idea for another company, Crayon Creatures, started when its founder's daughter asked to have one of her drawings transformed into a toy through a do-it-yourself 3D printer. This venture now produces little figurines at a cost of $130 each for online shoppers who submit their own artwork, though Mr Hardie forecasts a future where consumers could theoretically complete the same process from their own printer at home.

Sometimes a company's customers within this sector have shifted from consumers to the business market.

Within the UAE, Precise has deployed 3D scanning and printing technology through its startup operation called TIM, or This Is Me. The boutique business scans people in 360 degrees, from head to toe, then produces a miniature version in their likeness.

While TIM first focused on making its presence known to shoppers through retail outfits in local malls, the company has since started offering its services for creating architectural models. "The next step will be into the medical field to provide 3D printing service for dentists," says Mr Hohmann.

As this market continues to rapidly evolve, some ventures have started introducing much smaller, cheaper 3D printers aimed at consumers, with prices that range from $400 to $500.

WobbleWorks, a toy company from Boston, is pitching a so-called 3D printing pen through Kickstarter.com, where it is seeking $30,000 in funds to help develop and release the product by December.

Known as the 3Doodler, the device would be used like a pen to draw in the air or on surfaces while it slowly spits out fast drying, coloured plastic.

One major advantage the 3Doodler would have in this market, unlike most of its competitors, is that it does not require fancy software or a computer. So far, donors from the public have contributed more than $1.8m to see the project come to fruition.

Of course, transporting this kind of technology then adapting it for use in outer space is another matter.

To help to complete its moon-based project, the ESA has turned to Monolite UK. This London-based company has a 3D printer that spits out special paper constructed, in part, from simulated lunar material at the rate of two metres per hour. It then makes so-called structural ink from a binding salt to layer on top of the dome and form a stone-like barrier.

Enrico Dini, the founder of Monolite, says the company is working on the next generation design of its 3D printer.

He estimates the new model will be able to spit out construction material at the rate of 3.5 metres per hour, "completing an entire building in a week."