By Jamie Goodwin
Imagine printing a new house, jewellery, even a healthy heart, from your home office. The ‘disruptive’ influence of 3D printing is being followed closely around the world, while the UAE is working to create its part in the revolutionary technology.
From jet engines to teeth and buildings, the advancement of 3D printing is pressing forward at breakneck speed — and experts believe virtually any industry is able to commercially benefit from its progress.
The technology, also known as additive manufacturing, allows the production of pretty much any solid object, made from almost any material, using a single machine. It seems if you can built it, you can also 3D-print it.
Already, companies are able to print all types of solid objects at far-flung sites situated thousands of miles from their bases of operations, though at this early stage in the development of the relatively new technology, it is mainly in low-volume industries such as aerospace and healthcare.
In the UAE, the multi-tiered Dubai 3D Printing Strategy will shape the development of the technology in the city’s construction, consumer and healthcare sectors. It has already seen the inauguration of the world’s first 3D-printed office building — the “Office of the Future” — near Emirates Towers, which was built in just 17 days.
The strategy is part of a government push to make Dubai and the UAE a global hub for 3D printing technology by the year 2030. Research is already taking place into the mass production of 3D-printed teeth, hearing aids prosthetics and implants. Globally, scientists are working on the realistic goal of printing a real, working human heart.
In aerospace, testing began on the world’s largest jet engine, constructed of 3D-printed parts, early this year in the US. The technology allowed General Electric (GE), the company behind the project, to create pieces that would have been impossible to make using conventional methods. In June, Airbus flew the world’s first 3D-printed aircraft, a mini-plane called THOR (Testing High-tech Objectives in Reality).
Of course, it is eye-opening scientific advances such as organ creation and jet propulsion that will grab headlines and help to secure funding for those pushing the production of 3D printers for commercial and household use. But the real driver of the technology will be its ability to streamline business, reducing costs on staffing, transportation, storage and more. The industry had already reached $4bn globally by 2014, according to figures released by EY, and that number is projected to grow to $21bn by 2020.
But how does it work? The process begins with the design of a 3D image using computer-aided design (CAD) software to create a file that is sent to a 3D printer. The printer then produces a series of layers, made of plastic, ceramics, metals or even liquids, which build up to form the solid shape of the 3D object.
The current economic limitations are well-documented — right now, costs per item are much higher than those associated with factory mass-production. But even as critics dismiss its ability to be a game-changer, many experts believe the sector has the potential to be a ‘disruptive’ influence on business practice.
The impact could reach across all sectors, says Ross Maclean, digital and innovation leader for EY MENA. He says pharmacies and clinics could be 3D printing personalised drug treatments on a multinational level within a few years.
“This would completely negate the need for global pharmaceutical firms to be transporting medicines across the world,” he says. “They could be printed locally, on demand, to meet your specific needs.
“We strongly believe that every sector will ultimately be disrupted, but for products that can be mass produced in large factories at low costs, the change may take longer. I would imagine that industries with more customised designs will be the leaders in adopting this technology.
“The current trend is to 3D-print smaller items [from] printers based in homes and offices. But as the technology progresses and larger items such as houses and industrial equipment become more commonplace, Dubai will find itself very well-placed to take advantage of this. Dubai is already a world leader in logistics and aviation, and with more than two-thirds of the world’s population within a seven-hour flight of Dubai, the possibilities are endless in terms of how Dubai could leverage its infrastructure and strategic location.”
Dubai’s 3D strategy calls for the printing of medical items such as ceramic teeth within four years, ahead of the deadline for the Dubai Healthcare Authority’s (DHA) Strategy 2021 — though with clinics in the US already printing teeth in 20 minutes for patients that were previously waiting a week, the DHA’s goal is to beat their deadline, says Dr Mohammad Al Redha, director of the authority’s Executive Office for Organisational Transformation.
“As a tradition, we [in healthcare] are taught three guiding principles: is it going to increase patient safety, is it going to increase quality of the service and is it going to reduce time and money?” he says. “Anything that does these three things is very welcome. Obviously 3D printing ticks all these boxes.
“Obviously you can print anything you want and we chose the printing of dental textures like the tooth for example, which is something very easy. If somebody has, God forbid, their arm cut off or their finger cut off. How do you replace it with a prosthesis? Now that may be done with 3D printing because it is much cheaper and much faster. You can print in much less time and much lower costs.”
At this early stage in the race to produce, bigger, faster and smarter 3D objects, the biggest issue is trust, according to Dr Al Redha. As the technology advances at pace, customers as yet know little about the brands producing the equipment.
“You don’t want a machine that breaks down, you want a good partner who services the machines and takes care of them,” he says. “Obviously if I go and buy a car like a BMW or Mercedes, I know these brands, I have used these brands. But with the new names coming out in the 3D printing world, I don’t know these names. I know nothing about them so the issue of trust is still there.
“These companies have come a long way but you don’t risk it with a patient’s life, or with something that will be part of a patient’s body such as a 3D tooth that will be in a patient’s jaw for the rest of their life. You have to be careful with the quality of the product so that is taking a bit of time to scout the market.”
However, the advancement of the technology’s life-saving potential cannot come quick enough for some patients. With a huge global shortage of donor organs, those waiting for transplants could before too long be the recipients of a new, 3D-printed heart, liver or lung.
Scientists are attempting to create organs using a patient’s own cells, which means patients will not reject the new organ. Skin, tubular structures such as blood vessels and hollow structures such as bladders have already been created. The next step is solid structures such as the liver and kidney.
“That is a very hot topic, a favourite of mine,” Dr Al Redha says. “Imagine the ink in your [home or office] printer is instead stem cells taken from a patient, having been given the stimulus to become kidney cells. You consider it your ink and put it in a cartridge, but you are not printing 2D, you are now printing 3D, and out comes a kidney which is tailor-made for the patient and it will not be rejected because it is made with his stem cells.
“It is not harvested out of somebody’s body because they had an accident, it is customised for the patient. Imagine the cost that is saved and time that is saved most importantly in making it. It is a dream come true. It is really a miracle.”
Data on 3D printing adoption in the UAE is currently unavailable, according to Michael Brilhault, PwC global aerospace, defence and security senior manager.
Globally, the industry still holds a relatively small piece of the pie when compared with rival industries such as the $70bn machine tool market. But it is growing fast, with 24 percent of companies having gained experience in the technology and a further 12 percent considering it, according to EY’s global study, published in April 2016. It revealed the majority of Chinese and South Korean companies expect to produce end products within five years.
But 3D printing also raises questions over tax that could trip up corporate leaders and global policymakers, according to another EY report, entitled “3D printing taxation issues and impacts”.
“There are potentially a lot of tax issues around 3D printing,” Maclean tells Arabian Business. “Historically, the taxation of goods and services has always been based in the physical movement of goods or provision of services.
“Let’s take an example — if you buy the design for a 3D-printed building in Oman, but build it in Dubai, where do you pay the tax on that? With the introduction of VAT [value added tax] into the region, it will also have a myriad of considerations for 3D printing.
“3D printing is still in its relative infancy, but a lot of businesses are actively working through the art of the possible, and the disruptive impact it may have. As the technology matures, you will start to see this hitting a critical mass.”
But it is not just businesses that could change their economic practices as equipment becomes cheaper and more readily available, Maclean says. Individual consumers are already finding ways to save money through additive manufacturing.
“A more mundane example [of its potential use] may be that your maintenance company can 3D print the part you need to fix your air-conditioning unit when it breaks down,” he says. “Having a global supply chain will no longer be restricted to big businesses, so long as you can access the design, any person or company will be able to print any product.”
“I order a lot of things online. Sometimes it takes a week or two and when it comes, it is not exactly what I wanted,” Dr Al Redha says. “I cycle and I needed a bike-holder in my garage. If I order online, the item is very heavy because it is made of steel so I am going to pay double the cost in shipping. With 3D printing, I printed through cheap filament and it is very strong and durable and I put my bike on it in the garage.
“We have to work harder to make this more real rather than just an idea. It is multi-factorial. It starts with someone like me who buys a printer and puts it at home, or somebody who is printing their child’s drinking bottles. Right now, it is a luxury. A regular 2D printer is something of a must now. Almost every home has it. So I would like to see that shift happening soon.”
It could be only a matter of time before 3D printers are commonplace in every home in Dubai — and how long before the homes themselves are 3D-printed. With the rapid take-up of the technology in both business and consumer markets, firms are already preparing themselves for its “disruptive” impact.