Every so often, a new technology grips the tech community, usually ones that are described as pioneering and disruptive. A few years ago, it was 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, that was bestowed this hype. While the technology has been around since the 1980s, it was in the 2010s that 3D printers had become affordable, giving its buyers the freedom to print whatever they wanted in plastic.
The hype around 3D printers was soon replaced by on-demand and gig economy startups like Uber and Airbnb, but now as the world grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic, additive manufacturing is attracting interest once again and growing at an unprecedented pace.
According to Statista, the global 3D printing market was valued at $14.5 billion in 2019, up from $12 million in 2018. Its prediction for this year is a market worth $17.5 billion, reaching $21 billion by 2021, a forecast that takes into consideration the impact of the pandemic.
The Unfortunate Gap
Some of the world’s richest countries turned out to be the least prepared for the pandemic, putting the lives of their frontline healthcare staff not only at risk, but eventually counting them among the number of deaths that continue to rise daily. Thousands of healthcare workers have died in Italy, the UK and US due to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), which is still in short supply.
The main reason is that most of the world’s PPE is manufactured in China, where manufacturing came to a halt during its lockdown, resulting in a backlog of freight shipping.
The one industry that has been agile enough to come to the aid of healthcare workers and frontline staff is 3D printing. Designs for face shields, medical equipment including ventilator valves and parts have been shared on open source channels around the world, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to produce them.
In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), several 3D printing startups have pivoted to contribute to the fight against the Coronavirus.
Jordan-based Eon Dental, which 3D prints dental aligners, is now collaborating with the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan and three individuals to develop and produce the consumables and spare parts for ventilators. The company re-configured its machines to prints thousands of parts daily.
“We knew that we had to be proactive to combat the Covid-19 outbreak in Jordan and leverage our scientific engineering and manufacturing capabilities,” says Fadi Samawi, director of manufacturing at Eon Dental. The startup managed to deliver the first parts in the first week of April, the week that Jordan went into lockdown.
For Fahmi Al Shawwa, founder of Immensa, a UAE-based startup that focuses primarily on the oil and gas industry, it was a trip to the dentist that inspired him to begin 3D printing face shields.
“My dentist said his supplier couldn’t get these face shields anywhere, so I got back to the office and asked our engineers to design a face shield, they modified and optimised an open source design and produced the first one in eight hours,” says Al Shawwa.
Immensa produced 15 face shields on the first day in February and now produces 10,000-12,000 daily, exporting them to Europe, the US and to the rest of the Middle East region.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) face shields can decrease the transmission of viruses by 83 per cent, making them a highly effective form of PPE. It takes 30 minutes to just over an hour to print each face shield with a retail price of up to Dh20, and getting them to frontline staff in local markets is far quicker than shipping them in from elsewhere.
“We rely so much on supply chains that are not necessarily efficient,” says Al Shawwa. “Shipping now takes much longer, people need to have better risk aversion plans and minimise the loss of production.”
The disruption in global supply chains and dependence on China’s manufacturing sector has led some to call for a return to local manufacturing of goods.
“I’ve lost my voice shouting that people need to localise the supply chain, people need to print spare parts on demand. The whole world is going towards that, as unfortunate as the Coronavirus is, it will wake up a lot of people,” says Al Shawwa.
But it is not just efficiency that might propel the industry’s growth. Prior to the pandemic, the biggest issue that affected the world was climate change and sustainability. Much of the world’s governments had committed to reducing their carbon emissions while startup and investor focus had shifted to sustainable and impactful innovation.
The lockdown halted manufacturing and construction in most countries which account for 20 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions according to data from the International Energy Agency. As factories closed their doors, carbon emissions decreased by 5.5 per cent, resulting in clearer skies and a return of wildlife to shores and towns. A swift return to a large carbon footprint will be difficult to justify, particularly when options like 3D printing are proving to be a more economic alternative. The US Department of Energy estimates that 3D printing can reduce energy costs by 50 per cent and cut material costs by 90 per cent.
“We will see completely new industries developing because of this situation, preventative measures and how to protect yourself and loved ones will become more of an industry that will develop,” says Lothar Hohmann, president at UAE-based Precise Group.
How soon these new industries will emerge remains to be seen, but it seems that additive manufacturing will play a part.
“This could be the trigger point for 3D printing, what was meant to happen in the next five to eight years will happen in five to eight months,” says Al Shawwa.