As the virus spread, healthcare systems around the world reported acute shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other lifesaving medical devices. But the virus was disrupting normal supply chains and complicating procurement. In an emergency like this, a decentralised network of 3D printing facilities – capable of being deployed on demand and at scale – can quite literally save lives.
It has been just over a decade since the concept of additive manufacturing entered the public consciousness with the introduction of the first desktop 3D printers. At the time, the technology’s evangelists believed the devices would become as ubiquitous in homes as microwaves were. Of course, this belief wasn’t borne out by reality.
By 2012, the IT research firm Gartner had placed 3D printing at the top of its “hype cycle” curve, which is used to measure the pattern of inflated expectations and subsequent disillusionment with emerging technologies. While 3D printing may not have started a revolution for consumers, it has made serious inroads in the field of heavy industry. Airbus placed its first 3D-printed part, a titanium bracket, on a plane in 2014. The company claims parts produced using additive manufacturing weigh up to 55% less.
The technology also has early-stage applications in the construction sector in the form of “large format” additive manufacturing techniques. There have been successful demonstration projects using steel and cement – including a small bridge in Amsterdam and an office building in Dubai. Perhaps most significant was last summer’s announcement from GE: the renewable-energy giant intends to develop record-breaking 200m wind turbines with the help of 3D-printed concrete bases.
Wind-turbine towers have typically been restricted to heights of 100m or less because their steel or precast concrete bases cannot exceed 4.5m without incurring excessive road transport costs. Printing a base onsite using specialised concrete means that towers can reach heights of 150 to 200m, thereby capturing stronger winds and generating more power.
Some of the most impactful applications of 3D printing can be found in the medical field. Researchers have used 3D-printing methods to create everything from an artificial “skin” for burn victims to hips for arthritis sufferers. When Covid struck last year, engineers wasted little time creating prototypes that could help critically ill patients. A team in Spain had already designed a ventilator using 3D-printed parts by the end of March 2020. Meanwhile, hobbyist 3D printers were joining forces with academics and manufacturers to bring much-needed items of PPE to market.
In New York City, a kind of cottage industry grew up to distribute PPE. One group, Covid Maker Response, was founded by librarians at Columbia University alongside the 3D-printing companies MakerBot and Tangible Creative. Together they were able to design, produce and assemble more than 3,000 face shields for healthcare staff in just 10 days. Similar initiatives sprang up across the city and around the world.
Manufacturers have long known that there are cost and carbon savings to be made from producing parts on demand with 3D-printing techniques. However, the true power of highly customisable, decentralised manufacturing perhaps hadn’t been evident before the events of last year. Even now, as supply chains recover and economies reopen, experts believe that “local microgrids” of 3D-printing factories could become part of the new normal.
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