Most countries in Europe went through deindustrialization at the end of the 20th century. Numerous examples, such as England, France, but also Luxembourg, have led to the loss of thousands of jobs, but also allowed new sectors and industries to rise. Nowadays, technology is giving manufacturing a newfound youth, notably thanks to digital and new means of distribution. Yet, the real innovation may be the advent of 3-D printing. For many reasons.
The origins of 3-D printing dates back to the early 1980s and was at that time called «Rapid Prototyping» (RP). Dr. Kodoma from Japan filed the very first patent application but he never went through with it, giving way for Chuck Hull and his stereo lithography apparatus (SLA) to eventually obtain the first patent 6 years later. The 1990s and early 2000s were years of uncountable technological projections but the technology was only used for industrial prototypes.
The first commercially available 3-D printer was put one sale in January 2009, but it wasn’t until 2012 that media channels picked up on it and therefore participated in its global diffusion and awareness. Ever since, 3-D printing has known a significant and growing success, materials such as nylon, ceramics and titanium are now being used; allowing industries all over the world to definitely adopt the technology, which is also known as «additive manufacturing».
In Luxembourg, Saturne Technology, has been using 3-D parts for its spatial, automotive and aviation clients, mostly using ceramics or metal for more than 3 years now. CEO Walter Grzymlas admits that R&D took a long time, lasting around 6 years before they were able to actually use the technology to satisfy the needs of clients. The company can now deliver lighter products, which is a big advantage when your parts are being used on planes, cars, etc. The LIST (Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology) are equally aware of the potential of 3-D printing for many industries in Luxembourg.
In Esch-sur-Alzette, the Technoport and especially the FabLab (Fabrication Laboratory) are developing applications for several industries. In the latest UBI Global rankings, the incubator associated to the University of Luxembourg was recognized as the fifth University Associated Business Incubator in Europe in 2015, and seventh on a global scale. Finally, Farvest, through the organization of the MorpheusCup – the first European universities and graduate schools championship – also promotes the development of the technology as the winning students get to take home 3-D printed trophies, manufactured by Concept Store 3D, located in Metz, France.
Redefining the manufacturing world
Let’s take a step back in history and remember the theory of Creative destruction by Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter. «The process of industrial mutation incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one». One example which is closely linked to 3-D printing is the spreading of «classical» printing: it instantly destroyed the jobs of thousands monks who used to copy books, however, this allowed a new printing industry to emerge and become an almost similar version of what we know today.
Economist Jeremy Rifkin, author of The New York Times bestselling book «The Third Industrial Revolution», foresees 3-D printing as the technology that «will change the entire way we think of industrial production». Not only will it enable on-site production for factories, save time and money, it will also democratize «around the corner» manufacturing, as consumers could, thanks to global digitalization, have their products almost instantly created at the closest 3-D printing shop.
3-D printing to save Mother Earth?
Circular economy and especially the need for countries to reduce their carbon footprint and fight against global warming may result in the repatriation of industries that have been located in China for the past decades. The most-populated country in the world – but also the most polluting – is already anticipating this shift and aims to turn into an economy of services.
Goods will therefore be manufactured where they are consumed. It also helps with customization in a world where consumers prefer unique, durable and on demand goods. Moreover, according to Jeremy Rifkin, in an article published in the Huffington Post, the «3-D printing process requires only 10 percent of the raw material expended in traditional manufacturing and uses less energy than conventional factory production, thus greatly reducing the cost».
From the automobile to the medical industry and space exploration
3-D printing has been a part of the automotive industry for years. First used to create prototypes, the technology currently serves for building actual parts of the car and the engine… The best example being Local Motors’ LM3-D Swim, which is composed of 75% 3-D printed parts. The American company announced it was going to start taking pre-orders for the vehicle starting this spring, and aims to attain 90% as the technologies continue to develop rapidly.
When it comes to innovation in the health industry, 3-D printing is clearly one of the most impressive ones. If Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) are testing 3-D printing to model clinics and hospitals in hostile territory in order to be able to deploy and operate even faster, 3-D printing offers immense potential to the medical industry.
The American association E-Nable creates 3-D printed arm and forearm prostheses mostly for kids. The blueprints are available in open-source, and it takes 24 hours to print the different parts: a true revolution for people who cannot afford expensive prostheses. The technology means significant progress in regenerative medicine and forecasts immense hope. Ears, human tissues and artificial bones are examples of what can be achieved by scientists.
Airbus Group is already using 3-D printing for producing parts for test flights and for parts that will soon fly on commercial aircrafts. As you are reading this, a titanium alloy bracket which was printed is flying aboard the Atlantic bird 7 telecoms satellite.
ALM, Additive Layer Manufacturing as referred to by Airbus Group, is definitely beginning to shape the future of aircraft manufacturing.
Another advantage is the fact that on average only 5% of waste material is produced from ALM. Such a figure could never be achieved with a more classical method of manufacturing. NASA just sent Gecko Grippers, a 3-D printer, to its International Space Station so that astronauts can build tools notably to attach sensors and other instruments onto and inside satellites. In this respect, NASA even created a «3-D Printed Habitat Challenge Design Competition» last September and is moving closer to building a completely 3-D printed rocket engine.
Over the past years, there has been a lot of talk about the exploration of Mars. Here again, 3-D printing could save the day as it could help to build parts of the future Martian base using materials found directly on the Red Planet. What else could be in store? Companies and startups are working on bringing 3-D printed food to the table…