Better by design?

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From the creation of engine components and military weapons to recreating facsimile human organs, 3D printing holds the potential to revolutionise many scientific and industrial processes. Here, Newton¹ portfolio manager Paul Markham provides a glimpse of a fast evolving market and its possible future.

Imagine a world where a pair of sturdy, perfectly fitting shoes could be tailor-made and printed while you shop and made ready for collection within an hour? Or even one where healthy human organs could be printed quickly and efficiently for use in lifesaving transplants?

These are just some of the applications scientists and developers of 3D printing machines are working to support.

First developed in the mid-1980s, 3D printing processes allow specialist printers to make physical objects from a three-dimensional digital model, most commonly by printing layer upon layer of base materials such as alloy particles until a 3D object emerges.

Over time, unpredictable and inefficient 3D printing systems have given way to greater precision and flexibility in the materials printers can support. While 3D printing is, for now, mainly a specialist and niche manufacturing process, some feel it has huge economic and market potential.

Growing market

It is estimated that the 3D printing market will be worth US$32bn by 2025 and over US$60bn by 2030 in the oil and gas industry alone² with applications in areas as diverse as healthcare and biotechnology, food production, architecture, vintage car repair, avionics and jewellery manufacture also holding significant potential.

While some manufacturers have tried to market 3D printed toys and other novelty products, Newton’s Paul Markham believes these markets are largely unviable and unsustainable as alternative processes, such as injection moulding, are much cheaper. Instead, he believes the 3D printing focus will increasingly fall on high end engineering and processing applications.

From an industrial application perspective, 3D printing is now much more focused on industrial precision applications like turbines and aviation engine manufacture. The processes 3D printing involves are very good at producing intricate parts such as aviation components which fit inside each other and must be precision crafted.

Defence is a key sector increasingly exploiting 3D printing technologies. In the US, engineers at the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center have developed a 3D printed grenade launcher – the rapid additively manufactured ballistics ordnance unit, dubbed RAMBO³.

Elsewhere, the Royal Australian Navy this year announced it was to deploy a metal 3D printer in order to supply spare parts for its patrol vessel fleet⁴.

More controversially, it is also possible to create 3D printed guns, leading some policymakers to fear tech-savvy terrorists and criminals could print their own DIY firearms at home from online instructions and technologies such as computer aided design (CAD) packages.

While incidents involving home-made guns are rare it appears some are determined to exploit 3D printing techniques to make their own weapons. A case in June this year saw a London student convicted of using a 3D printer to manufacture a hand gun capable of firing lethal shots.⁵ The defendant had claimed this was meant to form part of his university coursework.

Healthcare advances

While 3D printing undoubtedly holds strong potential in the defence sector, healthcare has so far arguably proved the most exciting area for its development and use. Increasingly, 3D generated models are being created to assist and help guide complex operations, with facsimile organs also being produced for wider research purposes.

In 2016 a three year old girl from Northern Ireland became the first to have a life saving kidney transplant using 3D printing.⁶ While this case saw a copy of the organ used to help doctors perfect the relevant operation, scientists hope entire bioprinted organs, based on tissue samples, could be used in transplants in the future.

Commenting on developments in this area, Markham adds: “Advances in science mean some 3D printers can be used to recreate cell structures, with bio-printers helping to form tissues and organs using human cells and this is probably the most impactful development for society 3D printing has offered to date.

The advantage of recreating organs on an individual basis through 3D printers is that the individual’s own cells could be used. Rejection of organs can be a major problem if the recipient’s immune system reacts against transplanted organs. If you were to use the cells of the patient to recreate organs the body should find them easier to accept. In theory, organ transplant rejection shouldn’t happen.

While 3D printing undoubtedly holds exciting potential, Markham believes it will the companies using it rather than those manufacturing the printers themselves that will be likely to offer the strongest investment potential in the future. He also points out that, for all their benefits, the process does have some significant drawbacks.

Research and development in this area can be extremely costly. One of the big drawbacks of 3D printing is also its relatively slow speed. Making highly sophisticated industrial equipment can take days to finalise – which is one of the reasons 3D printing has seen more use in building prototypes than on production lines. That said, the industry is working hard to speed up and improve 3D printing and, looking forward, we expect to see some good progress made on this front,” he says.

According to Markham there may also be some environmental benefits in using 3D printing to replace other, less efficient and sustainable industrial processes.

In a world where environmental, social and governance concerns are rising, 3D printing may ultimately provide industry with some more sustainable process solutions, in that 3D printing is an additive process, not a subtractive one.

If you are carving an object out of a block of wood or filing it out of base metal the production process you use will create considerable waste. In contrast, if you are building something via a 3D printer you only need to apply the exact amount of base material to create products and should generate less waste in a more sustainable manner,” he concludes.

¹ Investment Managers are appointed by BNY Mellon Investment Management EMEA Limited (BNYMIM EMEA), BNY Mellon Fund Management (Luxembourg) S.A. (BNY MFML) or affiliated fund operating companies to undertake portfolio management activities in relation to contracts for products and services entered into by clients with BNYMIM EMEA, BNY MFML or the BNY Mellon funds.

² 3D Printing in Oil & Gas – Thematic Research. GlobalData. September 2019.

³ Army Technology. Made to measure: the next generation of military 3D printing. 23 January 2018.

⁴ Computer World. Royal Australian Navy gets ‘world first’ 3D printers. 21 November 2019.

The Guardian. London student convicted for making gun using 3D printer. 19 June 2019.

Telegraph. Toddler gets world first adult kidney transplant using 3D printing. 26 January 2016.

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