Until now, the 3D printing industry has ticked along without having had the monumentally life-changing impacts everyone said it would. Whether this be because we haven’t yet figured out how to best use the technology, or because 3D printing was hyped up well beyond what the technology could deliver, I don’t know. But I do know this. Caught unawares, over the coming months we will begin to appreciate fully the potential of 3D printing as it produces lifesaving solutions in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 test kits, churned out by 3D machines more quickly than humanly possible.
As health care workers around the world face the onslaught of the worst pandemic to have hit globally since the Spanish flu of 1918, governments are drowning under the backlog of requests to develop more testing kits and PPE for doctors and nurses. The highly infectious novel coronavirus is slowly wiping out the medical workforce, and healthcare workers are finding themselves desperately sewing cloth masks between shifts to protect themselves from potential infection by their patients. Having mobilised whatever national and international resources they possibly can, governments are finding their efforts sorely inefficient. Thousands of healthcare workers have already contracted the virus, and hundreds have died as a result. But the answer has come crawling out of the woodwork, with the 3D printing industry stepping it up in response to calls from medical workers and health authorities to help deliver much-needed PPE and testing kits, as well as other medical supplies.
In the midst of a global crisis, 3D printing enthusiasts worldwide are working together to churn out face shields, gloves, and COVID-19 test kits as quickly as demand requires it. In Canberra, Australia, 3D printers are being used to produce face shields to protect hospital staff at Canberra Hospital’s intensive care unit from COVID-19 at lightning speed, while Formlabs, a developer and manufacturer of 3D printers based in Massachusetts, is now using 250 printers in its Ohio factory to manufacture 100,000 nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing – each day. In Spain, a consortium that includes Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB), HP, Leitat, SEAT, Consorci Sanitari de Terrassa (CST), and the Parc Taulí Hospital in Sabadell, has developed a 3D printable respirator that works as an emergency device to help patients breathe for a short period of time. Already, the 3D respirator has been approved by medical experts.
It brings a relatively niche industry into the spotlight, propelling it to where it needs to be to hit its target value of more than $44 million by 2025 – more than 10 times what the industry was worth just five years ago. 3D printing technology at industry standards has progressed very rapidly in recent years —and is a space to watch closely in 2020.
People always anticipated that 3D printing could – and would – impact the end-to-end global supply chain. Additive manufacturing (the proper name for the 3D printing process) transforms the way objects are built by removing the human manufacturing element and replacing it with a machine. The process allows parts to be built with new geometrics, by adding layer upon layer of material. In terms of industrial application the possibilities are endless: 3D printing can allow us to build lighter, more heat resistant, stronger products far more quickly than previously possible, and at lower costs. Last year saw manufacturing sectors around the globe shaken up as the 3D printing market saw staggering growth, as businesses began to realise they could produce high-volume, low-value production manufacturing using the technology. Innovation skyrocketed in the footwear, fashion, construction, automotive, and aerospace industry, as researchers embraced 3D printing to make better products, faster. But it’s application isn’t limited only to industry: today you can find 3D printing machines in classrooms, boutique jewellery shops, and in individual homes.
Not long ago, we were overjoyed at the idea of a machine that could reproduce a 3D model of our face. Today, we have recognised its potential goes much further: 3D printing technologies are capable of producing medical devices and human body parts. As 3D printers become more versatile, and able to handle an expanding variety of materials, we will only see their value continue to skyrocket. In 2019, the total value of 3D printed parts increased by a whopping 300 percent, and in that same year a record $1.1 billion plus was raised by 3D printing startups – and that was all pre-COVID.
In 2020, industry experts anticipate that composite 3D printing will enter a growth stage, 3D printing softwares will improve significantly, cross-industry collaboration will accelerate and high-volume 3D printing will take a step closer to becoming a reality. Be it that all or none of the above eventuates, one thing is for certain. There will be a monumental increase in the amount of money invested in 3D printing in 2020, as the world comes to realise that 3D printing could be the most transformational technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.