How 3D Printing Could be the Catalyst for Global Development in the Modern Age
Hailey Dawson was born with a rare congenital defect that left her missing a right pectoral muscle and only two fingers on her right hand.
With only one functioning hand, Hailey needed a prosthetic. Her family consulted several doctors, only to find that a traditional prosthetic hand would cost over $20,000.
Seeking a more affordable solution, Hailey’s mother reached out to several engineering students at UNLV, who agreed to help. Over the next few months, they worked with Hailey to create a prosthetic hand made primarily out of 3D printed plastic. The total cost? Just over $200.
With her new 3D printed hand, Hailey gained a significant amount of mobility, allowing her to write, grab items, and even throw a ball. So well in fact, that Major League Baseball (MLB) caught wind of her story, and invited her to become the first person to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in all thirty MLB stadiums. (Bella 2018)
Hailey Dawson’s story is a testament to the versatility and efficiency of 3D printing, yet it begs the question: why is 3D printing so much cheaper than traditional forms of manufacturing?
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a fundamentally simple concept. A computer model of a solid object is first created. A 3D printer then constructs this model layer by layer, each time depositing a miniscule amount of material, whether plastic, metal, or even concrete, on the previous layer. This method allows a single 3D printer to create unbelievably complex objects that would otherwise require a machine shop of CNC mills, lathes, and other tools.
In 2009, the patents for many 3D printing technologies expired, and the devices hit consumer markets en masse. Currently, one can purchase a consumer grade 3D printer for less than $200, enabling almost anyone to replicate Hailey’s prosthetic hand. (All3DP 2020)
However, the industrial applications of 3D printing are vastly underutilized, as 3D printing only makes up less than 1% of the global manufacturing market. (Sanders 2019) Applications of 3D printing will drive global development and sustainability efforts in manufacturing, housing, and medicine.
One of the most promising applications of 3D printing is its role as a low-cost, low-energy, and low-waste alternative to traditional “subtractive” manufacturing methods. According to the US Department of Energy, additive manufacturing bypasses the copious amounts of scrap material produced through machining methods, which can reduce material costs by up to 90%. (DOE 2015). This has profound implications for communities and businesses around the world, as additive manufacturing can dramatically lower the startup cost of a small business by serving as a hub for both prototyping and production.
Though some may question the ability of 3D printing to integrate into existing manufacturing pipelines, the Harvard Business Review indicates otherwise. Based on a case study of the US hearing aid industry, in under 500 days, every manufacturer transitioned from traditional to additive manufacturing techniques, citing the printers’ flexibility as a primary factor in their adoption. This case study revealed that widespread usage of 3D printing can in fact be implemented in certain industries, a move that can greatly reduce waste material and energy consumption. (D’Aveni 2015)
However, it must be noted that 3D printing can never quite replace very large-scale manufacturing methods such as injection molding or extrusion, which can turn out hundreds of items in a matter of seconds. Despite this, 3D printing can still find its place in industries that produce on small to medium scales, a move that, according to researchers at the University of Groningen, has the potential to reduce global energy consumption by 2.54-9.30 exajoules. Although this amount seems miniscule compared to the current total world energy consumption of 474 exajoules, this figure translates to a total cost savings of 170–593 billion USD by 2025 while cutting CO2 emissions by 130.5-525 million tons. (Gebler et.al 2014)
Given the economic and environmental benefits of 3D printers, the integration of these devices into various industries is paramount. The applications of 3D printing in manufacturing, however, extend far beyond businesses. One example of this is assisting disaster relief.
Humanitarian relief efforts are often impeded by lengthy supply chains, damaged infrastructure, and limited resources. 3D printing provides an effective solution by shortening the supply chain and placing manufacturing where it is needed most. Several 3D printers powered by batteries or a generator can turn out hundreds of items in the time it would take traditionally manufactured products to reach the disaster’s epicenter. This model has already proven itself in Haiti following the 2016 hurricane season, when a team printed over 100 usable tools, parts, and medical supplies for local use. (Goulding 2017)
Some of the latest developments in 3D printer technology center around using concrete to create habitable structures. Companies such as Icon have built large format 3D printers that stand over 11 ft tall extrude a specific blend of concrete in a similar manner as a consumer level printer. According to All3DP, these concrete printers are capable of constructing small homes in as little as 12 hours at a cost of around $10,000 per home. Though the printers require a flat, pre-built foundation, and manual installation of roofs and other hardware, they have been sought by many larger cities as affordable housing solutions for homeless and low-income individuals. (Gregurić 2018)
In Austin, Texas, many formerly homeless residents are moving into a community consisting in part of Icon’s 3D printed homes. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the world’s first community of entirely 3D printed homes is already under construction. Though we are far from seeing the transformation of American suburbs into 3D printed concrete havens, the concept of these devices has dramatic global implications. (Jayson)
Icon, for instance, hopes to bring their homes worldwide, and already has plans to establish a community of 100 homes in El Salvador. Companies in China are also cashing in on this technology, printing multi-story villas and apartment buildings. Based on a report by Forbes, this technology could cause massive booms for global housing markets, as 3D printed homes, whose “3D-printed components can be produced with 95% fewer labor hours, two times as fast as regular construction and with 10 times less waste”. This means traditionally underserved areas, including slums and remote communities can access proper housing, an investment that spurs economic development in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. (Silver 2020)
In the world of medical 3D-Printing, accessibility to high quality healthcare products is the greatest focus. The introduction of high-precision 3D printers has been a cornerstone in achieving this. According to Autonomous Manufacturing, over 600,000 3D printed knee and hip replacements have been produced as of 2019. This number is expected to increase to 7 million by 2027, a positive outlook for the aging global population. (AMFG 2019)
Hailey’s hand therefore represents not only a life changed by 3D printing, but a potential breakthrough in global healthcare development. Based on a report by the World Health Organization, over 30 million people worldwide are in need of a prosthetic or orthotic device. Furthermore, 75% of patients in developing countries do not have a way of acquiring such devices. 3D printers producing models identical to that of Hailey’s hand could greatly mitigate this issue. (Burt 2018)
Given all of its potential applications, it’s easy to imagine 3D printing as the solution to many of the world’s problems. However, the challenge in implementing this technology lies in a lack of understanding of computer design software and other skills required for additive manufacturing.
Despite this roadblock, many organizations, such as the US Marines, who oversaw a team construct a 3D printed concrete barracks under professional guidance, have proven that the knowledge gap surrounding additive manufacture can in fact be bridged. (Jayson 2020).
3D printing has the potential to transform global manufacturing. For many, it may kickstart business ventures, spur local economies, and become a permanent part of industry, and for others, such as Hailey Dawson, 3D printing has the capacity to change lives.
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Bella, Cheryl. "Eight-Year-Old Hailey Dawson Completes Her “Journey To 30”". 2020. University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. https://www.unlv.edu/news/release/eight-year-old-hailey-dawson-completes-her-journey-30.
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