The use of 3D printing is becoming more widespread and available to increasing numbers of people and is pushing into a variety of fields. So where is the real progress being made?

3D Printing Becoming both a Popular Tool and a Valuable Medical Aid?

Additive layer manufacturing (ALM), aka 3D printing, which is seen by economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin as one of the prime concepts of the Third Industrial Revolution, is now being used in the workplace, in healthcare, for eyeglasses, personalised marketing and in the home. Two of the innovations highlighted at the Netxplo Forum in Paris in late March embodied two distinct trends: first, the fact that 3D printing is now being widely used by many different kinds of people; and second, that it is being harnessed in the medical field to treat some very specific illnesses or conditions. So what real progress and benefits can we expect to see in the near future? Laurent Ricard, a partner at technology consultancy Sc21 who specialises in digital transition, believes that while the popularisation of 3D printing is now bringing about a step-change in the use of ALM, the health sector seems to be the area likely to benefit most from progress in digital techniques, with real solutions on offer.

From everyday items to biotech advances

One of the inventions on show at Netxplo was a 3D Mobile Scanner, developed by a team led by Marc Pollefeys, a Professor at the Computer Vision and Geometry Lab of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), which is expected to hit the market within the next year. Using a mobile smartphone app, it can scan everyday objects and even the faces of your friends and family and send them for printing in 3D. This type of technology is certainly in vogue at the moment, but as Intel’s RealSense technology, the Fuel 3D scanner and the above-mentioned ETH technology shows, “there are limits,” warns Laurent Ricard. “Of course, a 3D printer is able to make all sorts of small parts, but if users don’t have the right materials, they’ll most likely tire of the idea very quickly.” In this field, available materials are extremely limited. On the other hand, prospects for 3D scanning looks a lot brighter in the e-commerce sector.  With a 3D scanner, “a user can for example take a photo of his foot and then check that it matches the size of the shoes he’s thinking of buying from a given website,” explains Ricard. E-commerce firms would then probably see the rate of returned goods, which is a real problem for e-tailers, fall considerably. A second invention on display at Netexplo set a very different tone and holds out very different prospects: Skinprint, a project led by Ingmar Van Hengel which is still at the prototype stage, is the first to manufacture living skin with ALM  techniques. “It takes just a month to reconstruct a patient’s skin using biological printing,” explained van Hengel.

A maturing market

The idea of 3D-printing of organs is not really new. L’Atelier has been reporting on such techniques in L’Atelier Numérique (L’Atelier Digital) radio broadcasts for a couple of years already. However, the technology now seems to be taking an interesting turn and Skinprint could radically alter the lives of serious burn victims or patients suffering from severe skin diseases. “We believe we could reduce the cost of treating burn patients by a third,” van Hengel told the audience. However, argues Professor Marc Pollefeys, “the real innovation is that as the technology progresses, we’re now seeing convergence with everyday usages.

3D printing is today part of a general technical evolution even though the actual technology has already been around for thirty years or so. So to call it a revolution is something of an exaggeration,” he underlines. Meanwhile Laurent Ricard does not think it is easy to draw a picture of future uses and markets for 3D printing, but he does think that this market seems today to be maturing. “I often compare 3D printing to digital photography twenty years ago (...) Today we simply couldn’t live without it,” points out the Sc21 partner.