Additive manufacturing is making its mark

The continuous improvement of the techniques and precision of 3D printing, as well as the use of an array of new materials are making it possible to produce ever more effective parts and to widen the scope of application of this technology, from construction to medicine, through aeronautics. The stakes are shorter and cheaper processes that require less energy and raw materials.

“ 3D printing can support the practice of repairing by facilitating access to spare parts at an affordable price.”

Buildings erected in just a few days

Concrete 3D printing is starting to emerge in the construction industry, with projects relying on this technology having proliferated over the last few years.

3D-printed social housing was thus inaugurated in Nantes in 2018. It is a 95 m2 house comprising 5 rooms and a set of complex architectural forms created thanks to a process combining additive manufacturing and robotics developed by two laboratories from the university of Nantes.

Named Batiprint3D, this consists in depositing three layers of material via a polyarticulated robot: two layers of expanding foam, acting as formwork for a third layer of concrete. Once the building of the walls is finished, the foam remains in place so as to achieve insulation of the home with no thermal bridge.

However, this house is nothing compared to the biggest 3D-printed building in the world, erected in Dubai in 2019 by Russian firm Apis Cor. The two-storey administrative building is 9.5 m high for a total surface area of 640 m2. The city has adopted a real strategy in this area and has announced its wish to reach 25 % of new buildings built with 3D printing by 2030.

3D printing in the construction industry has many benefits. First of all, it enables a reduction in construction times and costs. The Nantes house was built from the ground up in just a few days, at a cost of € 195,000.

It also enables a reduction in the use of raw materials and in waste creation thanks, in particular, to the optimisation of the structures. On the Dubai construction site, waste production was reduced by 60 %, according to the city officials.

Furthermore, 3D printing provides a high degree of architectural freedom with the possibility to imagine a variety of complex forms that are impossible to create using traditional techniques.

The repair sector rejuvenated

“Don’t throw it away, fix it” is the motto of DIY enthusiasts. A pillar of the circular economy, repair work contributes to extending the useful life of products and reduces the environmental impacts generated by their production and the management of associated waste. 3D printing can support this practice by facilitating access to spare parts at an affordable price.

In 2017, the French environment and energy management agency (ADEME) published the first French study on product repairs using 3D printing and attending digital manufacturing spaces (fab labs), acknowledging the role played by these technologies and by third spaces to rejuvenate the repair sector.

When a part is faulty (the main cause of breakdowns), 3D printing makes it possible to make a new one on demand, be it the button of an electronic or domestic appliance, a radiator tap, drawer handle, or zip fastener. Concretely, it is now possible to download models from 3D-file sharing platforms (such as Thingiverse or Cults) and make the desired spare part oneself by using one’s own 3D printer, by going to a fab lab, or through an online 3D printing service.

On the retailer side, Boulanger was a forerunner in this area with its launch of the Happy3D platform, on which its 3D models of spare parts are shared. Small appliance manufacturer SEB has been experimenting for several years now with the reparation of spare parts printed in 3D.

Tomorrow, 3D-printed working organs?

It is the size of a cherry. The first vascularised heart printed in 3D using a patient’s own cells was revealed by Tel Aviv University in April 2019. A few months later, in the United States, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University presented a functional heart valve, printed from collagen.

These two prototypes are pushing back the boundaries of bioprinting in the area of regenerative medicine and represent a hope in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

An emerging technique of 3D printing, bioprinting consists in piling up living cells by using a computer-assisted layer-by-layer deposition process to make living tissue and organs.

For researchers and surgeons, the “holy grail” would be to manage to print fully-working biocompatible complex organs – using the recipient’s cells – for transplant. This would make it possible to meet the increasing demand for grafts and to reduce the risk of rejection.

But the perspective of a human transplant of a 3D-printed heart, pancreas, or liver is still a long way off. Bioprinting will probably first repair an existing organ, such as a heart having suffered a loss of function.

In parallel, research carried out on the production and transplant of simple tissues such as skin, bone or cartilage, has yielded promising results. Today, bioprinting primarily enables the production of biological tissues destined for medical research, pharmaceutical research, and cosmetic tests, which are sold by companies such as Organovo, in the United States, or Poïetis, in France.

Tailor-made and easily-accessible prostheses

The prosthesis 3D-printing sector has gone beyond the experimental stage and is today part of the everyday lives of thousands of people the world over. Intended to replace a limb or a joint, prostheses are essential in the improvement of patients’ quality of life. The problem: they are expensive and are often unsightly.

3D printing makes it possible to produce unique prostheses that are adapted to each patient at a fraction of the cost of traditional techniques.

After discovering 3D printing in a fab lab, Nicolas Huchet, whose right hand was amputated following a workplace accident, launched his open source myoelectric prosthesis project, Bionicohand. The young man managed to bring together a team of makers and develop a 3D-printable device costing less than € 1,000.

Today, his My Human Kit association is carrying on the development of Bionicohand as well as other projects linked to DIY and disability by encouraging the participation of those concerned.

The e-Nable association, for its part, relies on a community of around 20,000 volunteers spread across more than 100 countries, who design and make upper-limb prostheses for children and adults affected by agenesis (born without fingers or without hands), or who have undergone amputation. Since its creation, over 8,000 devices have been delivered free of charge.

In 2017, Handicap International launched a project of 3D-printed lower-limb prostheses, aimed at making fitting accessible to populations living in conflict zones or isolated regions.

Industrial applications

The number of applications of 3D printing does not stop growing. In the automotive and aeronautical industries, use cases go from “simple” rapid prototyping to the manufacturing of parts integrated into cars and aeroplanes. Several tyre manufacturers are working, for example, on concepts of ecological tyres printed in 3D.

During the 2019 Paris Air Show, Safran Aero Boosters announced that it had obtained certification from the European and American civil aviation authorities for an aeroplane engine lubrication unit (fitted in the Airbus A320neo) made with 3D metal printing. A first!

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