3D printed hearts and homes on Mars? The future of additive manufacturing

Posted on: November 28, 2016 by

In my first post, I explored how additive manufacturing (AM) is opening up new possibilities for organizations to be more creative, reduce their costs and save time when developing products. Here, I look at how the manufacturing technique is being applied to specific use cases in healthcare and aerospace.

Tailor-made implants

AM is becoming more and more important in the operating theatre, now enabling surgeons to create highly customized implants for each individual patient. For example, advancements in the UK have enabled surgeons to use 3D software to quickly design and print bespoke titanium implants to rebuild people’s faces after injury or disease. Previously, this cost thousands and had to be printed abroad, but the technology has been brought closer to home and is now being developed at a hospital in Cardiff, Wales.

Perhaps the most disruptive application of AM to healthcare however, will be bio-printing: whereby human organs could be produced and then transplanted directly into the patient. Bio printers artificially construct living tissue by placing living cells layer upon layer to create a 3D structure. Bio-printed tissue is already being used today in drug toxicity tests, and experts expect the first fully 3D printed human organs to be ready by 2030. Once the technical challenge has been overcome, other ethical questions will be raised.

Extra-terrestrial habitats

The other sector that is being transformed by AM is aerospace. The first 3D printer is already producing parts and components in the International Space Station (ISS), but the use of AM will become more and more important. For instance, any hardware that is implemented at the ISS (or any other extra-terrestrial destination) must meet strict regulations set by the rigors of launch. However, AM could overcome these limitations by enabling this hardware to be produced at their intended destination – the ISS.

AM could soon be applied in space to enable the following:

  • On-site replacement of parts and components
  • Recycling, as AM could make use of plastics and other waste
  • The creation of structures difficult to produce on, or be shipped from, earth. For example, components that do not conform to weight and volumetric constraints imposed by launch

Some experts even foresee that AM could help to produce habitats for human beings on the moon or Mars, once the most hostile conditions of the space environment have been overcome (for instance, microgravity, the thermal environment, power supply and autonomy).

Establishing a common standard and addressing IP issues

While these developments are exciting, there are a few challenges that must be addressed before the full potential of 3D printing will be realized. From a technical perspective, a common standard and regulatory framework for certification must both be developed to homogenize materials, processes, inspection and testing.

In addition, security issues concerning the misuse of Intellectual Property (IP) must be solved, especially if the printing of the part is not done by the manufacturer themselves but a third party. 3D printing models are relatively easy to reproduce, and can be rapidly spread over the internet. Measures must therefore be put in place to protect manufacturers’ IP. From a legal point of view, who is responsible for the quality of a printed part and who guarantees its performance? Is it the designer of the 3D model or is it the manufacturer? What role does the raw material provider play?

Finally, certain societal aspects will also need to be addressed. From a labour perspective, designers will need to up-skill in new areas to take real advantage of the technology. New business models will arise and manufacturers must evolve their corporate strategies and incorporate concepts such as ‘co-production’ with their customers. This environment will require “Industrial Data Platforms” to enhance new ways of collaboration. In parallel, technological solutions for Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection and security, distribution platforms and traceability will emerge as the basis for robust ecosystems with flexibility and security at the core.

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