Blog: Confessions of a doubter

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A recent snippet of news that caught my eye came from a Spanish technological centre for plastics called Andaltec, which had taken part in a 3D printing project to improve the outcome of a surgical procedure to remove a tumour. The centre reported that it had designed and printed a precise 3D model of a seven-year old girl’s chest. The girl had a tumour growing very close to her heart, which made the proposed procedure both high-risk and tricky. The technicians used ultrasound to scan the affected area after which the 3D model was manufactured. The model was used by the surgeons to plan and prepare for the surgery.
Wow, I thought - and I hope she survives. But the news also got me thinking about 3D printing.

It must have been around ten years ago that the buzz about 3D printing suddenly started getting louder, and I have to admit it: I was a doubter. The technology, developed in the 1980s, did not seem to be really getting off the ground, and in fact, appeared to be more for ‘fun’ than for anything else. The process was slow, the quality of the 3D-printed products was poor and the idea that the technology would ever carve a useful place for itself in industries varying from healthcare to space seemed downright far-fetched.

It seems, however, that I was wrong to doubt - very wrong, in fact. But it wasn’t just me: in March 2012, for example, TJ McCue contributed an article to Forbes in which he predicted that “additive manufacturing, aka 3D printing, will reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020”.  Compare these figures to those of the just-published Smithers Pira 3D printing report, and it is clear that we got it well and truly wrong. According to this latest report, the global value of the 3D printing activities reached $5.8 billion in 2016 and “this explosive growth trend will continue, with global value reaching $55.8 billion by 2027 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23.0%”, write the authors.

Already for this year, 2018, great things are being predicted. With more and more manufacturers starting to understand where and how 3D printing can fit into their processes and with the development of functional, new materials and sophisticated high-speed printers that make it possible to print customised high-quality end parts, mass customised production finally appears to be a reality.

Even the technology needed to 3D print optical lenses is now becoming available, something long considered an impossibility because of the layer-by-layer nature of 3D printing. A Belgian company called Luxexcel has introduced a technology through which lenses from very small droplets which are seamlessly merged together to create the lens.

3D printing is here, no doubt about it and has definitely gone, as they say, from buzz to business. For me, this was resoundingly confirmed by the fact that in the news item above, the centre proudly reported it had “executed this job free of charge with the sole intention of helping this girl, so this action is also included within the company’s Social Responsibility Programme”.

Well, of course. But now what I’d really like to know is how the little girl is doing.

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