The technological revolution that is 3D printing is still in its infancy but already the possibilities seem almost endless. Many analysts believe it has the potential to make a major impact on many sectors.
Dawn of a new print dimension
It has been hailed as one of the most exciting and seminal innovations in technology.
The impact 3D printing will have on our future has yet to be seen or fully appreciated but its application extends from art and education to biology and aerospace.
Over the past year, manufacturers have focused on making 3D printers cheaper and more accessible to consumers. As the cost of 3D scanners is also falling (and increasingly becoming embedded into smartphone cameras) the implications on manufacturing are huge, and issues of patent and copyright infringement have come to the fore.
According to the research firm Gartner, 3D printing will result in US$100bn worth of intellectual property (IP) losses every year. “Effectively, the technology will enable anyone to manufacture almost anything, from toys to shoes,” says Harriet Balloch, a senior associate at the law firm Clyde and Co.
“This has the potential to lead to widespread infringement of IP rights, including copyright, design rights and patents.”
Many analysts have likened 3D printing to the music business going through the digital transition. Recording companies were vehemently against the digitisation of music and streaming services before being forced to accept it. The same reaction is likely from manufacturers where 3D printing is concerned.
Copyright and patent laws will need to be reformed and some analysts in the United States are arguing for an entire overhaul of the patent legal system, saying it is outdated in light of today’s technological requirements and advancements.
However, the 3D printing industry is still nascent. By the end of this year, the Consumer Electronics Association expects 100,000 3D printers to have been sold globally.
According to the market research company IDC, the 3D printer market in the Middle East will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 59 per cent from 2012 to 2017 in terms of units shipped and 29 per cent in terms of revenue.
There are a handful of 3D printer suppliers in the Middle East including Jumbo and Jacky’s Electronics and the region’s first 3D printing shop was opened in Beirut last year.
“3D printing as an industry has the potential to revolutionise everything from medicine, health care, fashion, art, architecture and technology beyond what seemed possible even 20 years ago,” says Daniel Cowen, the co-founder of 3Doodler, a US-based 3D printing equipment manufacturer.
“3D printers are getting more and more affordable and software more accessible, so 3D printing is finally becoming financially accessible to smaller businesses and home users, without the constraints of very complex and expensive software and equipment.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting uses is in biology and health care. Printing animal and human tissues will help advance research and development and will also cut the need for animal testing. There may come a day when organ donorship will no longer be needed as doctors will be able to print replacement organs.
“One of our most successful uses has been in the 3D printing [models] of babies’ hearts, particularly those of newborns who need to undergo complex heart surgery,”says Kevin Cleary, who leads the interdisciplinary bioengineering team at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at the Children’s National medical centre in Washington.
“Surgeons find it very useful to have a detailed physical model of the heart they’re about to conduct surgery on, it allows them to better analyse the issue and practice key elements of the procedure before ever operating on the infant.”
This has raised surgeons’ confidence and can shorten operating time.
“Down the road, we may even be able to use 3D printing to create organs that would actually be functional inside a body,” says Mr Cleary.
“We can 3D print organ scaffolds that can then be seeded with various biological cells to ultimately grow a complex organism. This process is still very much in the research phase and, if it proves to be possible, will not be seen for at least 10 years,”he adds.
Bio-printing will, however, raise questions centred around morality and ethics, but it demonstrates the technology’s almost endless potential.
Already experts are working on 4D printing. The US architect and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s self-assembly lab, recently told the BBC what the extra dimension involves.
“We’re proposing that the fourth dimension is time and that over time static objects will transform and adapt,” he says.
The process uses a specialised 3D printer that can create multi-layered materials. It combines a strand of standard plastic with a layer made from a “smart” material that can absorb water, which in turn acts as an energy source for the material to expand once it is printed.
“The rigid material becomes a structure and the other layer is the force that can start bending and twisting it,” in a pre-determined manner, says Mr Tibbits.
“Essentially the printing is nothing new, it is about what happens after.”
Such a process could in future be used to build furniture, bikes, cars and even buildings, he thinks.
Others are experimenting with different materials to enable greater creative flexibility.
“It is going to open up more avenues for human expression, giving people full control of the physical models that they are trying to create,” says James Clar, a 3D printing artist.
“We are just starting to really explore with 3D printing and the possibilities are pretty much limitless, it is just a matter of trying to understand the technology to control it.”
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