Friday 24 July 2020 3:30 pm Apater Capital Talk

3D printing takes on new dimensions

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City A.M. contributor

3D printing’s evolution has dished up developments galore to chew over recently. Six months ago a company ‘making’ a (plant-based) steak captured headlines, with the BBC asking: ‘would you eat a ‘steak’ printed by robots?’.

The same firm – a Barcelona start-up, NovaMeat – was in the headlines again a couple of months ago, unveiling 3D-printed (plant-based) ‘pork’ skewers. This week, again in the food sector, we read that KFC is developing 3D-printed ‘chicken’ nuggets. 

These quirky examples illustrate how 3D printing – whose technical name is additive manufacturing – is penetrating sectors well beyond its established applications in fields ranging from medical devices (such as the manufacturing of hearing-aids) to industrial engineering. 

Healthcare leads way as patent applications surge

The pace of innovation in 3D printing, which has a history stretching back more than 30 years, is increasing. European patent applications for 3D printing increased at an average annual rate of 36% from 2015 to 2018 (more than ten times greater than the average yearly growth of all patent applications combined during the same period – 3.5%), according to data released last week by the European Patent Office (EPO). 

The USA made 34.8% of 3D printing patent applications with the Munich-headquartered EPO between 2010-2018; Germany made 19%; Japan made 9.2%; and the UK made 5% – the second largest European contributor (just ahead of France at 4.8%), according to the EPO’s 84-page report on trends in 3D printing technologies. 

The biggest sectors for 3D printing patent applications are healthcare, energy and transport, while industrial tooling, electronics, construction, consumer goods and – yes – food also show rapid growth.

‘Almost limitless’ potential for UK Plc

“3D printing is one of the most exciting technologies currently improving healthcare,” the Association of British HealthTech Industries (ABHI)’s director of policy and communications, Richard Phillips, tells City AM. “The ability to manufacture bespoke products close to patients offers almost limitless potential. With our engineering heritage, world-leading universities, Life Sciences Industrial Strategy [published in 2017] and the NHS, the UK is exceptionally well positioned to capitalise.”

Within transport, 3D printing’s potential has also caught the eye of Railway Industry Association (RIA) senior technical and innovation manager Richard Jones. The sector has, he says, seen greater focus on 3D fabrication in recent years and there is “clearly untapped potential” in developing 3D printing-related technologies further. The scale of uptake, he says, will depend on factors such as whether companies feel 3D-printed materials are sturdy and safe enough.

As chief executive of manufacturers’ trade association Make UK, Stephen Phipson has a view across a wide range of sectors. He believes the coronavirus pandemic has showcased 3D printing’s growing importance. “The crisis has catapulted the adoption of digital technologies by industry and what might have taken five years has, in some cases, taken five months,” he says. “The increased use of 3D printing has been very evident involving medical equipment in particular and, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerates, it will be one for the forms of technology that industry will increasingly adopt as part of new working practices and processes.”

James Hunt of the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is optimistic for 3D printing’s growth although he says that set-up costs can potentially become a “real show-stopper”, especially when using metals.

AMRC’s engineers joined the surge of organisations nationwide switching the use of their 3D printers to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals during the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis. Hunt reflects: “The challenges around sourcing medical equipment during Covid-19 have highlighted how traditional manufacturing methods can have limitations in their ability to provide a rapid response. Additive manufacturing, as part of a digital manufacturing toolkit, provides the flexibility and agility required of today’s production environment.”  

Patented technology enabling product personalisation

Two out of three patent applications in 3D printing technologies were filed by very large companies, according to the EPO. But, increasingly, start-ups and SMEs are also pushing innovation into new areas.

Rem3dy Health launched a 3D-printed vitamin brand, Nourished, last October. The company has a growing number of 3D printers – currently about 20, with many more being built – whirring away at its Birmingham base producing personalised supplements. Using patented technology, Nourished combines seven active ingredients into one customised, vegan and sugar-free gummy stack, which are posted to about 3,000 subscribers every month. 

“We saw how consumer demand has driven personalisation across sectors such as retail and health, and applied it to nutrition,” explains company founder Melissa Snover.  

Rem3dy is aiming to launch a 3D-printed personalised medicine ‘dispensary and combination solution’, Scripted, in 2021 and has other brand extensions for Nourished in the pipeline.

Enthused by the potential of the 3D market more broadly, Snover believes that greater use of 3D printers in traditional manufacturing and also domestic settings, as 3D printers become more versatile and accessible, will continue to drive the technology into the mainstream.

“Additive manufacturing enables the user to create bespoke solutions in rapid time, which I believe will have huge advantages for a number of industries as we see the trend in personalisation expand and grow,” she says.