A few months ago, NewtonX conducted a series of consultations with ten 3D printing experts, including two former senior-level employees with global infrastructure firm AECOM, and one former senior engineer with Arup, a built environment firm. These consultations led to the conclusion that despite relatively insignificant advances in 3D printing technology and high operating costs, investment in 3D printing would increase exponentially this year, resulting in faster, better, and cheaper 3D printers. Now, 3D printing has expanded beyond the $10T construction market, and into healthcare, home and office furniture, and even food manufacturing.
NewtonX expanded its 3D printing investigation to include a survey issued to 50 3D printing engineers and 50 executives at 3D printing companies in the healthcare, construction, and manufacturing industries. The insights and data in this article are sourced from this survey.
3D Printing 101: Uses and Limitations
At its simplest, 3D printing functions by converting a 3D digital image into composite parts that can be stacked on top of one another until they form a 3D version of their digital counterpart. For houses, this looks a mechanical “arm” squeezing quick-dry cement in layers until it builds up into a full structure. 3D printers can be very precise, capable of printing complex interactive parts such as wheels and levers.
At their genesis, 3D printers were largely used for rapid prototyping. Then, the manufacturing and construction industries picked up on the technology and started implementing it for constructing parts, and more recently, even entire homes. Now, the $18B healthcare industry has begun experimenting with 3D printing synthetic organs, including stem cell 3D printed hearts. Here’s a brief survey of the machines and their applications for each industry.
3D Printing in Healthcare
Companies such as Biolife4D, Prellis Biologics, and Organovo have leveraged 3D printing to create synthetic hearts and human tissue for drug discovery. The process for creating using 3D printing consists of taking an MRI of the patient’s organ for a digital image, taking a blood sample from the patient, converting blood cells into stem cells, and then converting the stem cells into heart cells. The organ cells are then combined with nutrients in a hydrogel that can be used in specialized 3D printers. After the cells are in the formation of the patient’s actual organ, the new heart cells start to self-assemble until they function exactly as the original organ did.
3D printed organs and tissues have two potential benefits: the first is, of course, having a transplant organ that the patient’s body is less likely to reject because it is the same size as the patient’s original organ and is an exact genetic match. The second benefit is, at the moment, much more likely to yield impressive medical advances: drug testing. Replicas or mini replicas of human organs allow researchers to test the effects of drugs more accurately and safely than animal testing allows for.
3D Printing for Food Manufacturing
3D printing has application for manufacturing foods such as chocolate, candy, pasta, and crackers. Indeed, Hershey announced a partnership with 3D Systems to explore using 3D printing in its candy making processes. Even NASA has invested in 3D printing for food, granting contractor Systems and Materials Research funds to develop a pizza printer. 3D printing allows for rapid, custom construction of foods, which can come in handy for special promotions or, in the case of NASA, for needing to assemble food with as little waste as possible.
3D for Housing and Construction
As we wrote earlier this year, 3D printing for construction has gained a high profile and a slate of use cases recently: over the past year, 3D printed construction projects have included a stainless-steel pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam, a 1,100 square foot single family dwelling in Milan, and a nonprofit startup that unveiled its plan to 3D print houses for as little as $3,500 in 24 hours for low-income populations in El Salvador. Just this month, Icon, a 3D printing and robotics manufacturer known for building the first permitted 3D printed house in America, raised $9M in funding.
3D printing can help promote material recycling and reduce on-site pollution, both of which are huge factors for infrastructure projects in urban areas.
Outlook For 3D Printers Across Industries
While there is certainly value that comes from 3D printing in myriad industries, its biggest economic impact will occur in additive manufacturing, particularly in metal (a market worth over a trillion dollars). One company in this space, Desktop Metal, has raised over $277M from investors including GE, Ford, and Kleiner Perkins, at a valuation of over $1B. The company’s 3D printers print metal parts 100 times faster and 80% cheaper than laser-based additive manufacturing machines.
3D printed pizzas are flashy and novel, but the true economic impact of 3D printing won’t be in food, or even in construction (yet); it will first be in additive manufacturing. The flashier versions of the technology will continue to grow and mature, but will not have significant economic impact in the near future.