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Quantum Leap: 3-D printing going to be a new reality

Over the last decade, home and office printers have remained pretty much the same, barring a few cosmetic changes. The biggest evolution is happening elsewhere, where printers are being used to manufacture actual products using digital models — from electric switches, toasters and pens to human skin, kidneys and food.

Early 3-D printers are already in use. HP has launched a few in India to print plastic parts like car panels and electric switches. Plastic components (non-critical) of aircraft are being made using 3-D printers. Narayana Health uses 3-D printed heart prototypes.

Researchers are also testing bio-ink as a way to print vital organs, bones and cartilage. Gartner estimates that the $4-5 billion global 3-D printing market will grow by 10 times in the next decade. Other analysts are more bullish, expecting the market to be $300 billion by 2025. A traditional printer prints on a flat surface while a 3-D printer adds depth.

Known as additive manufacturing, a 3-D printer assembles an object layer by layer using plastic, resin or metal. While manufacturing products is the easier part, the challenge is to scale the effort to make it truly useful for industries. The high cost of printers (even a small one to make a lunchbox at home costs around $30,000), limited skills and durability of products are big challenges.

But these should be overcome with innovations in material science. 3-D manufacturing units could run without manpower, with jobs shifting to design and software. Nike, Siemens, Philips, BMW and GE are advancing capabilities in 3-D manufacturing. Casca, a startup backed by Khosla Ventures, aims to make 3-D printed shoes on the spot for customers by 2029.

In October, Dubai unveiled the world’s largest 3-D printed building. The emirate wants a quarter of new buildings to be 3-D manufactured by 2030. 3-D printing will also change healthcare. The process to “print” human organs is called bio-printing which deposits layers of biomaterial to build complex structures like skin, bones or even corneas.

The cells are taken from a patient and cultivated into a bio-ink to print an organic part. These are held together by a dissolvable gel or collagen scaffold which can support the cells and mould them into the right shape. This could revolutionise human organ transplant and do away with the need for live donors for kidneys and liver, or cadavers for heart and kidneys. But most of the developments are limited to labs now.

This story is part of the ‘Tech that can change your life in the next decade’ package

Source: Economic Times