3D printing is a manufacturing game-changer

As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information

 

 

Calling all carnivores: ever thought about getting a meat printer? Of hand-crafting delectable beef steaks at home from plant proteins, that have the same texture, appearance and flavor as real meat, only without the distasteful killing part?

3D-printed steaks and chicken could be on the menu in European restaurants as early as 2020, with home-spun meat printers available to the consumer within a few more years. Israel-based Redefine Meat is already using “advanced food formulations” along with “proprietary 3D printing technology” to make what it calls the “holy grail of alt-meat”, reports Tech Radar Pro. 

The idea sounds absurd, but it’s not so far-fetched, as three-dimensional printing technology goes in directions no-one could dream of, prior to the launch of 3D printing in the 1980s. 

Uses  

Put simply, 3D printing is a progression of 2D printing, where a third dimension is added to the printing of images on a flat surface (a regular ink-jet printer), adding depth and allowing the printer cartridge to move in all directions. A digital file is first created using modeling software, then sent to the printer, depositing layers of the chosen material - often plastic or wax - to build up the final product. Other printing materials include plastics, powders, filaments, paper, and even human or animal cells - used in the cutting-edge new field of “bioprinting”. 

3D printing is also referred to as additive manufacturing because objects are made by “injection-molding” them to the desired size and shape, versus traditional manufacturing which invariably entails loading material into a machine to be cut to the required dimensions. With additive manufacturing, material is added, layer upon layer, without creating waste/ scrap.  

3D Printer employs a good analogy for 3D printing, describing the process as similar to baking a multi-layered cake: 

3D printers use a variety of very different types of additive manufacturing technologies, but they all share one core thing in common: they create a three dimensional object by building it layer by successive layer, until the entire object is complete. It’s much like printing in two dimensions on a sheet of paper, but with an added third dimension: UP. The Z-axis.

Each of these printed layers is a thinly-sliced, horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. Imagine a multi-layer cake, with the baker laying down each layer one at a time until the entire cake is formed. 3D printing is somewhat similar, but just a bit more precise than 3D baking.

Formerly known as stereolithography, 3D printing was invented in 1983 by Chuck Hull, co-founder of 3D Systems. Frustrated by how long it took to make small, custom parts, Hull suggested using his furniture company’s UV lamps to create parts by curing photosensitive resin, layer by layer. Calling the technology “stereolithography,” Hull applied for a patent and was issued one in 1986. 

Two years later, start-up 3D Systems manufactured the first 3D printer, the SLA-1.  

It took over 30 years for the technology to become mainstream, but now 3D printing can be done by anyone with access to a base-model 3D printer, which can be purchased for under $500. 

Among the more interesting items that have been 3D-printed are prosthetic limbs, fabricated firearms, electrical vehicles, steel parts (Caterpillar introduced the first 3D-printed excavator in 2017), quick-build homes, parts for combat aircraft, spacecraft, and even decorative chocolates.

Relativity Space is 3D-printing rockets at its Los Angeles headquarters.

According to Wiredyou’ll find four of the largest metal 3D printers in the world, churning out rocket parts day and night. The latest model of the company’s proprietary printer, dubbed Stargate, stands 30 feet tall and has two massive robotic arms that protrude like tentacles from the machine. The Stargate printers will manufacture about 95 percent, by mass, of Relativity’s first rocket, named Terran-1. The only parts that won’t be printed are the electronics, cables, and a handful of moving parts and rubber gaskets.

 

Z-Morph Blog lists five more really cool, recently-printed 3D-printed objects:

  • Nike prototyped their Vapor Hyperagility Cleat, designed to minimize slippage on the pitch, many more times using 3D printing, than if they had used traditional prototype manufacturing. The sport-shoe giant used to spend thousands of dollars on a prototype and wait weeks for it. 
  • General Electric has designed working prototypes of jet engines, fuel nozzles and other intricate components.
  • A Polish engineering firm used a desktop-sized 3D printer to create several variations of a new bridge in Gdansk, and to test their durability. 
  • American Pearl came up with a service called Jewelry Replicator, that 3D-prints customers’ jewelry designs into real pieces they can visualize. 
  • Construction equipment maker Volvo used 3D printing to re-tool their articulated haul trucks, cutting down the cost of prototyping by a tenth, and the time spent from 20 to 2 weeks. 

Methods 

From its mid-’80s beginning, a number of 3D printing technologies have emerged. 

The first, known as Stereolithography (SLA), concentrates a beam of ultraviolet light onto the surface of a vat filled with liquid photocurable resin. The laser beam draws out the 3D model one layer at a time, with each “slice” hardening as the light hits the resin. The solidified structure is gradually dragged up by a lifting platform, while the laser continues to form a different pattern for each layer to create the desired shape of the object. 

Digital Light Processing (DLP) is similar to Stereolithography, but uses more conventional light sources. A liquid crystal display allows for a large amount of light to be projected onto the surface of the object being printed, and for the resin to harden quickly. 

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) was invented in the late 1980s. The object is made by extruding a stream of melted thermoplastic material to form layers. The layers harden and fuse together almost immediately after leaving the extrusion nozzle.  

In Selective Layer Sintering (SLS), powdered materials instead of liquid photopolymer is drawn from the vat, including polystyrene, ceramics, glass, nylon and metals such as steel, titanium, aluminum and silver. A layer of powdered material is placed on top of the previous layer using a roller and then the powdered material is fused or “sintered” according to a certain pattern.

PolyJet photopolymer shoots out a photopolymer liquid, similarly to an ink-jet printer, which is hardened with a UV light. This technology acquired by Stratasys allows for various materials and colors to be incorporated into single prints, and at high resolutions. 

With Syringe Extrusion, virtually any material with a creamy viscosity such as clay, cement or silicone, can be 3D-printed using syringe extruders. The syringe is heated or not heated, depending on the material.  

Other variants of these technologies include Selective Laser Melting (SLM)Electron Beam Melting (EBM) which uses an electron beam instead of a laser, and Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM), where layers of paper, plastic or metal, coated with adhesive, are successively glued together and cut to shape. 

Market

Sales related to 3D printing, including printers, materials and services, will move past $US2.7 billion in 2019 and hit $3 billion in 2020 according to Deloitte Global, with a CAGR of 12.5%. Comparing that to the $12 trillion in global manufacturing revenues indicates the amount of growth potential in 3D printing and bioprinting.

The consulting firm explains that companies across multiple industries are increasingly using 3D printing for more than just rapid prototyping: 

3D printers today are capable of printing a greater variety of materials (which mainly means more metal printing and less plastic printing, although plastic will likely still predominate); they print objects faster than they used to, and they can print larger objects (build volume). A steady stream of new entrants is expanding the market. 3D printing is considered “an essential ingredient” in Industry 4.0, the marriage of advanced production and operations techniques with smart digital technologies that is being heralded as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Deloitte notes the number of materials used in 3D printing has more than doubled from five years ago, with mixed-material printers becoming more common. 3D printers are also about twice as fast in 2019 as they were in 2014. 

It says the biggest shift is from plastic to metal printing: “Plastic is fine for prototypes and certain final parts, but the trillion-dollar metal-parts fabrication market is the more important market for 3D printers to address.” Plastic’s share of the 3D printing industry fell from 88 to 65% in 2017-18, and metal rose from 28 to 36%. 

A recent technology called binder jet metal printing could halve the time required to produce each part, compared to the relatively slow and expensive selective laser sintering (SLS) method, states Deloitte. 

Size capabilities are improving too. A few years ago a high-end metal printer could only build an object 10x10x10 cm or one cubic liter. In 2019 metal printers with the capacity to print 30x30x30 cm are available. 

Companies 

As 3D printing technology continues to advance, more and more companies are forming, eager to get in on the action. Three of the largest are Stratasys, 3D Systems and Proto Labs; these companies offer 3D printers and services to help manufacturers move prototypes into production. 

Based in Minnesota, Stratasys has over 600 granted or pending additive manufacturing patents, including for the FDM, Polyjet and WDM 3D printing technologies. Among the sectors Stratasys serves are healthcare, aerospace, automotive and education. The company’s subsidiaries include MakerBot, GrabCAD, RedEye On Demand and Solid Concepts.

As mentioned 3D Systems was first out of the gate with a 3D printer, back in 1988. Along with pioneering stereolithography, 3D Systems has also developed selective laser sintering, multi-jet printing, film-transfer imaging, color jet printing, direct metal printing, and plastic jet printing. Divided into three business units - products, materials and services - 3D Systems offers small desk-top printers, metal printers and commercial printers that print in plastics and other materials. 

Also headquartered in Minnesota is Proto Labs, established in 1999. Building on automated solutions to develop plastic and metal parts used in manufacturing, in 2014 Proto Labs launched an industrial-grade 3D printing service, enabling software developers and engineers to quickly move prototypes into production. The company acquired Rapid Manufacturing in 2017 to further its efforts in sheet metal fabrication. It currently has 2,300 employees in 12 manufacturing hubs.

3D bioprinting - the next big thing in medical investing 

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, every day 21 people in the United States die waiting for an organ, and over 120,000 people are on organ transplant waiting lists.

The situation is worse in Canada. While Spain has 43 donors per million people, the US has 26, Britain has 21, and Canada has just 20. Out of 4,500 Canadians waiting for an organ, about 260 will die each year, according to The Organ Project. That’s five deaths per week.

Imagine if, instead of waiting for an organ from another person - possibly a relative but likely a stranger - you could walk into a doctor’s office and have one manufactured, with your cells. It sounds far-fetched, but the technology now exists for the tailor-made transplantation of organs through brand-new medicine called 3D bioprinting.

What is 3D bioprinting?

3D printing is a progression of 2D printing, where a third dimension is added to the printing of images on a flat surface (a regular ink-jet printer), adding depth and allowing the printer cartridge to move in all directions. A digital file is first created using modeling software, then sent to the printer, depositing layers of the chosen material - often plastic or wax - to build up the final product.

Among the more interesting items that have been 3D-printed are prosthetic limbs, fabricated firearms, electrical vehicles, steel parts (Caterpillar introduced the first 3D-printed excavator in 2017), quick-build homes, parts for combat aircraft and spacecraft, and even decorative chocolates.

Bioprinting operates on the same principle as regular 3D printing but instead of plastic, wax or other matter, bioprinters deposit layers of living cells to build structures like blood vessels or skin tissue. The cells are taken from an animal or a human being and cultivated until there are enough to create “bio-ink” which is then loaded into the printer using mechanical syringes. Adult stem cells can also be utilized.

Key to the process is a dissolvable gel which acts as a kind of incubator for the cells to multiply - like an embryo growing in a womb. Researchers may also plant cells around 3D scaffolds made of biodegradable polymers or collagen, allowing them to develop into functional tissue. The cells use their inherent properties to seek out similar cells to join with. Researchers are able to control the shape into which the cells form, and the printer builds the final structure.

After the tissues are fully grown and shaped, they are placed into a recipient’s body. The hope is that the 3D-printed object becomes as much a part of the patient’s body as the cells he or she was born with.

There are currently five common methods of 3D bioprinting:

  • Inkjet bioprinting: Droplets of bio-ink are deposited, layer by layer, onto a culture plate. Cells that can help fight breast cancer have been successful printed using inkjet bioprinting.
  • Extrusion bioprinting: Polymer or hydrogel is loaded in syringes and dispensed via pneumatic- or screw-driven force, onto a building platform. The motion is controlled by a computer. Extrusion bioprinting offers lower resolution than inkjet bioprinting but the fabrication speed is considerably higher, allowing anatomically-shaped objects to be generated.
  • Laser-assisted bioprinting: A laser is used to deposit the biomaterials into a receptor via a tape covered with biological material. The laser irradiates the tape, causing the biological material to evaporate and reach the receptor in the form of droplets. The droplets contain a biopolymer that acts as an adhesive to help the cells to grow. This high-resolution bioprinting method is being used in a partnership between French bioprinting company Poietis and L’Oréal to recreate a hair follicle that could lead to a cure for baldness.
  • Stereolithography: Stereolithographic bioprinting uses a “digital micro-mirror” to direct ultraviolet light onto the printing surface. Light directed by the micro-mirrors triggers the formation of molecular bonds, which cause light-sensitive hydrogels to form into solid material.
  • Bioprinting with acoustic waves: Using a device that allows cells to be manipulated with acoustic waves, researchers can manipulate where the waves will meet along three axes. The waves then form a trap that captures the cells, which are collected to create 3D patterns.

How far has it progressed?

Some of the most advanced work on bioprinting has been done at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in California. One of the first major structures that Wake Forest bioprinted was a human bladder. Made from cells extracted from a patient with a poor-functioning bladder, the 3D-printed bladder was successfully transplanted. The project built on custom-grown bladders that had previously been transplanted into seven patients suffering from spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the spinal cord.

Wake Forest staffers have also created an outer human ear, and implanted bioprinted skin, bone and muscle on laboratory animals that successfully grew into surrounding tissue.

The institute’s director, Anthony Atala, sees bioprinting as totaly transforming the relationship between the transplant patient and doctor, in much the same way that Dell changed the way consumers interacted with the computer company that sold PCs tailored to each customer’s unique needs. Patients could order replacement parts in much the same way they might order a new clutch for their Mazda.

“You’d have companies that exist to process cells, create constructs, tissue. Your surgeon might take a CT scan and a tissue sample and ship it to that company,” Atala said in a feature article on bioprinting in Smithsonian Magazine.

The company would then ship the organ back a week or so later, ready for implantation. Welcome to the new world of regenerative medicine: the plug and play human body.

Atala said the technology is developing to the point where researchers are almost able to replicate simple organs like the outer ear and the trachea (windpipe). Importantly, there are no real surgical challenges, he told Smithsonian.  

Challenges

The holy grail of 3D bioprinting would be to come up with a viable kidney for transplant. Professor Atala, of the Wake Forest Institute, created the first small-scale bioprinted kidney in 2002. However, Atala is the first to admit that his machine-produced kidney is nowhere near at the level it needs to be for a human transplant. A TED Talk Atala gave in 2011 about bioprinting, which culminated with a dramatic display of an object - really an over-sized bean - became controversial when the press got ahold of it and printed enthusiastic, but wrong, stories about the technology eliminating the need for a kidney transplant.

Another potential roadblock is the cost. No-one yet knows what it would cost to bioprint and transplant a human organ on demand, and how accessible the procedure would be to the masses of patients requiring a transplant. And while there have been successful bioprinted organ transplants, there haven’t been enough to determine how well the human body will accept the new tissue or artificial organ.

Finally, one shouldn’t underestimate the complexity and level of difficulty involved. As pharmaforum points out, “A complex network of cells, tissues, nerves and structures in a human organ need to be correctly positioned with a highest precision for it to function properly. From arranging the thousands of tiny capillaries in a liver, to printing a heart that beats, it is a long, difficult process.

Skin

Wake Forest is working on a skin-cell printer capable of printing live skin cells directly onto a burn wound. The procedure could replace skin-grafting, a procedure where healthy skin is harvested from an unburnt part of a patient’s body. Skin grafting can be hard to heal from, and in severe burn cases, there isn’t enough healthy skin left to use. 

This new printing technique only needs a patch of skin 10% the size of the burn, that is used to grow enough cells for 3D printing. The wound is then scanned for size and depth, information which the printer uses to print skin cells at the proper depths to cover the wound. 

In 2017 scientists in Madrid created a prototype of a 3D bioprinter that can create functional human skin. The printer is adequate for transplanting skin and for testing cosmetic, chemical and pharmaceutical products, ScienceDaily reported.

Hearts

At the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, researchers are working with decelluarized pig hearts. The organs have been stripped of muscle and other living tissue, but the original architecture is intact. The idea is to use decelluarized pig hearts, repopulated with bioprinted human cells, for implantation into humans. So far the institute has succeeded in injecting pig hearts with living bovine cells, then inserted them into cows where they worked successfully next to a cow’s heart.

Already, patients with a defective heart valve can have a pig’s valve or a mechanical valve implanted. Doris Taylor, director of the institute’s regenerative medicine research program, says the decelluarized method gets around the tricky process of printing at the extremely high resolution required for highly vascularized (containing many blood vessels) organs like the heart.

“The tech is going to have to improve a great deal before we’re able to bioprint a kidney or a heart, and get blood to it, and keep it alive,” Taylor told Smithsonian.

More recent developments though are moving in that direction. In 2016 Harvard researchers 3D-printed the first “heart-on-a-chip”. The tiny device contains living human heart cells that mimic the heart’s functions.

In 2018, 3D printing startup BioLife4D successfully produced human tissue in the form of a cardiac patch - derived from a patient’s white blood cells with multiple cell types contained in the human heart. According to pharmaforum, it’s another step towards bioprinting major organs for transplant.

Scientists at the American Friends of Tel Aviv University have reportedly 3D-printed a fully-vascularized heart using fat cells from a donor. The fat cells were partially cultured and re-programmed into heart cells. This early-stage technology has only been able to print a heart the size of a rabbit’s, but researchers hope to test the printed hearts in other animals. 

Ovaries 

Northwestern University in Illinois debuted a 3D-printed ovary using the acoustic waves method described above, and in Sweden, researchers have successfully created human cartilage tissue, also using acoustic waves. 

Thyroids

Russian scientists aboard the International Space Station successful bioprinted the first organ in space: a mouse’s thyroid. Space’s zero-gravity environment enables organs and tissues to mature faster than on Earth.

Bones/ cartilage 

A team from the UK’s Swansea University has apparently developed a bioprinting process that uses regenerative material to create an artificial bone matrix. The technology could replace bone grafting, a surgical procedure that replaces missing or damaged bones with synthetic materials. Unlike bone grafting, which doesn’t allow new bone tissues to form, thus limiting mechanical integrity, 3D-printed bones are capable of fusing with, and even replacing over time, a patient’s natural bones. 

Cartilage printing could revolutionize joint care through a hand-held cartilage printing device called BioPen. Built by Australian researchers, the BioPen contains stem cells derived from a patient’s fat, which create “custom scaffolds of living material into failing joints” much like 3D-printed bones. So far BioPen has only been tested on sheep but developers plan to accelerate it to regenerate functional human cartilage. 

Corneas

Finally, a group of researchers in South Korea has 3D-printed prototype corneas from decelluarized corneal stroma and stem cells. Unlike artificial corneas currently available, made of substances like synthetic polymer which resist incorporation into the eye, printed corneas are made to mimic the material within natural corneas. The invention could replace the need for donors and synthetic corneas in cataract surgery and other sight complications. 

Investment opportunity

3D bioprinting has come a long way since Professor Atala’s first artificial bladder in 2002. At Ahead of the Herd, we think it is the next big thing in regenerative medicine. Science always starts out with experimentation, sometimes many years of it, before the technologies are commercialized. We want our subscribers to be well aware of 3D bioprinting’s potential, putting them in a position to get in early to companies that are offering bioprinted products.

While there are currently a handful of bioprinting firms, we see an entire ecosystem of small firms developing, with each focusing on a different aspect, technology or part of the body. It will not take 10 years for start-up pub-cos to IPO, seeking money to develop their technologies.

Currently valued at USD$685 million, within the next six years, the global bioprinting market is expected to expand by a CAGR of 26.2%, reaching $4.4 billion by 2026. The United States and Canada are the industry leaders, making bioprinting an ideal new sector for North America-focused investors.

Following are some of the top names in 3D bioprinting: 

Organovo - San Diego-based Organovo (NASDAQ:ONVO) is well-recognized as a leading tissue engineering company. In 2014 Organovo bioprinted liver tissue that functioned as a real liver for weeks. In 2015 the company generated human kidney tissues, and it is developing synthetic skin through a partnership with L’Oréal. 

Cellink - US-based Cellink developed the world’s first bio-ink, that is universally compatible with all cell types in 3D bioprinters. The company also makes bioprinters used to enable 3D cell culture, personalized medicine and enhanced therapeutics. 

Allevi - Known previously as BioBots, Allevi manufactures desktop bioprinters to pharmaceutical companies, researchers and other medical professionals. The printers are priced as low as $10,000 but the company expects its specially-formulated bio-inks, valued at $1,000 per 100ml, to be a cash-generating machine. At TechCrunch Disrupt NY, the start-up printed out an exact replica of Van Gogh’s ear. 

Stratasys - Holds over 600 granted or pending additive manufacturing patents, including WDM™ 3D, PolyJet™, and FDM® printing technologies. These technologies create prototypes and fabricate products directly from 3D CAD files. Stratasys recently came out with a dental 3D printer that produces aligners for orthodontics. 

Formlabs - Somerville, MA-based Formlabs provides 3D printers for use in dentistry. The printers capture details of the patient’s teeth by scanning the mouth and turning the scan into a printable 3D software file.

Aspect Biosystems - Canadian company Aspect Biosystems provides materials for bioprinting such as printhead cartridges. Its proprietary Lab-on- a-Printer™ platform technology is enabling advances in understanding disease research, development of novel therapeutics, and regenerative medicine. Aspect has cooperated with the Frampton lab to create synthetic skin tissue, and partnered with Johnson & Johnson to develop 3D-printed knee meniscus tissue.

TeVido BioDevices - Based in Austin, TX, TeVido BioDevices aims to change reconstructive surgery starting with the loss of skin color caused by disease or scarring. A compound of two Spanish words, tejido (tissue) and vida (life), TeVido uses 3D printers for various reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries including for breast cancer survivors and patients who suffer from vitiligo, a disease that causes blotchy skin patches. 

Advanced Solutions Life Sciences - This Kentucky-based subsidiary of 30-year-old Advanced Solutions produces robotic arms for bioprinters. Its Tissue Structure Information Modeling (TSIM®) software and BioAssemblyBot® 3D printer workstation “comprise an integrated solution that empowers medical researchers and engineers to design, visualize, and print 3D virtual models of complex tissue structures,” the company states.

Tissue Regeneration Systems (TRS) - Plymouth, MI-based TRS is a medical device company specializing in skeletal reconstruction and bone generation using 3D printers and scaffold technology. After implantation, the skeletal reconstruction implants fully replace themselves with real bones. 

nScrypt - Headquartered in Florida, nScrypt’s 3D printers can not only print out living cells, but extracellular matrices, collagen and hyaluronic acid. The company’s BioAssembly Tools (BAT) Series can precisely dispense or extrude all the ingredients needed to construct living tissue.

EnvisonTEC - EnvisonTEC’s first 3D printer was a hit in the jewelry market – largely because of its ability to deliver incredible precision and surface finish, quickly. Manufacturers of hearing aids, dental prosthetics and other small and smooth parts followed.

Based in Germany with three offices in the US and one in Canada, EnvisonTEC  processes biomaterial using air or mechanical pressure to a syringe, which can fabricate scaffolds using a wide variety of materials.

Nano3D Biosciences (n3d) - Houston-based n3D’s core technology is the magnetization of cells, which can then be directed to either levitate or bioprint cells. These cultures are faster to assemble than other systems and easier to handle with magnets without losing samples. 

Modern Meadow - Modern Meadow’s focus is on materials that grow animal skin in a lab as bioprinted cell culture. The New Jersey-based firm grows collagen, a protein found in animal skin, from which is produced a bio-leather material called Zoa, that can be tanned and dyed the same as natural leather. Through a partnership with Evoniks, a large speciality chemicals company, Modern Meadow plans to start commercial production in 2020 at a manufacturing facility in Slovakia. 

3D bioprinting could represent the solution to the transplant dilemma that has plagued medicine for hundreds of years. As I write this, people are dying waiting for organs, or in severe pain. Imagine if that pain could go away, literally, in a heartbeat. While it’s still early days as far as getting to the transplantation of major organs, the potential for this technology is enormous. Instead of patients being hardwired into an organ transplant system that is slow, risky and heartbreaking for those who are too far down the waiting list, 3D bioprinting holds the promise of medicine tailored to the individual. We are on the cusp of the human body being plug and play: get a scan of your defective organ, and a tissue sample, then send it off to a company for organ fabrication. A week later, presto! New organ, problem solved.

Challenges

Could 3D printing replace traditional manufacturing? While the industry holds the promise of pinpoint accuracy, mass customization and “a printer in every home,” there are some real limitations on the technology. These challenges will have to be overcome if 3D is to move beyond a process that merely complements how things are currently made. 

One of the most serious drawbacks is the lack of a means to intervene when the printing process breaks down. A well-worn industry joke is, “Why are 3D printers transparent? So you can watch your build fail!” Printing processes need constant human monitoring to ensure they are running smoothly; some companies are actually installing cameras to watch their printers print. Moreover, once an object has been printed, technicians must perform quality testing to expose any defects. Non-conformities can't be corrected at that point and the object must be discarded.

This is a challenge considering there are numerous and complex variables that require monitoring, in order to achieve an acceptable level of accuracy. Trial and error methods of finding the correct lattice positions of appropriate support structures are neither sustainable nor fast solutions. 

3D printing and AI

Fortunately the problem can be solved by machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence (AI). Much like a child learns through play, machine learning uses generative design to improve printing efficiency and to save on costly mistakes. 

Generative design is an iterative process involving a software program that generates a number of outputs that meet certain real-world constraints. 

In the pre-fabrication stage, machine learning can help optimize lattices in the CAD files, and evaluate the most efficient printing paths. Designers input their goals into a generative design software, and parameters such as materials, manufacturing methods and costs. The software then explores all possible permutations of a solution and quickly generates design alternatives, learning from each iteration what works and what doesn’t. 

Defects can be detected using high-resolution cameras that film each layer of the printing process to record streaks, pits, divots and other aberrations that are invisible to the naked eye - saving time and materials. 

This is particularly important for metal printing. For example the manufacture of metal parts for the aerospace and biomedical industries requires perfect structural integrity. Without AI, manufacturers using 3D printing don’t know until the end of the process if the part created is satisfactory. A jet turbine blade can take weeks to complete and if there’s a mistake the whole part must be thrown out. While still in the development stage, AI could be used to correct mistakes in real-time, by adjusting the lasers that cut into the thin layers of metal powder, or adjusting the hair-like thickness of the next powder layer.

In the near future machine learning could be used for predictive maintenance, by accurately forecasting the remaining lifecycle of a spare part or piece of equipment. 

AI is also applicable to 3D bioprinting. A Belfast start-up that produces 3D prints of body parts is developing a machine-learning technique to automate the process of taking 2D images of slices of the anatomy to build up a 3D model. The images are necessary to denote bone, muscle and organ tissue. Automation would replace this task, currently performed by medical visualization engineers, which can take up to four hours per print. Because there are common features to human anatomy, a machine could be trained to scan previous files and label images. 

Conclusion

The fascinating new world of 3D printing is moving manufacturing into un-charted territory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 3D printing is likely to permeate every aspect of industry, and maybe even our personal lives. 

Prototypes of everything from running shoes to rockets can now be printed in three dimensions, improving the accuracy of prototyping, and dramatically cutting costs and time of prototyping.

However there are still significant holes in the technology that must be plugged by innovation. The complexity of just getting the 3D printing process to work is still daunting. It involves a fair amount of fiddling with formats, parameters and mechanical adjustments. 

The industry is ripe for new technologies that can make 3D printing more reliable, cheaper and less time-consuming. Artificial intelligence is the common denominator in most of the planned improvements. Indeed machine learning appears to be the key that will accelerate 3D printing to the next level - perhaps even analogous to mass production that started with the assembly of Henry Ford’s Model T. 

Companies that can seize the opportunity provided by AI and 3D printing represent the next investment horizon for Ahead of the Herd subscribers.

Richard (Rick) Mills

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AOTH/Richard Mills is not a registered broker/financial advisor and does not hold any licenses. These are solely personal thoughts and opinions about finance and/or investments – no information posted on this site is to be considered investment advice or a recommendation to do anything involving finance or money aside from performing your own due diligence and consulting with your personal registered broker/financial advisor. You agree that by reading AOTH/Richard Mills articles, you are acting at your OWN RISK. In no event should AOTH/Richard Mills liable for any direct or indirect trading losses caused by any information contained in AOTH/Richard Mills articles. Information in AOTH/Richard Mills articles is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. AOTH/Richard Mills is not suggesting the transacting of any financial instruments but does suggest consulting your own registered broker/financial advisor with regards to any such transactions

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