This week my p o l y m o p t i c friend Dedalus continues his musings on new plastics fabrication processes. This is how, in 1974, on the New Scientist David Jones, through an imaginary mad scientist, poked fun at a concept that brilliantly resembled 3D-printing.
For the first time in history something like this had been imagined. But people in 74 saw this type of technology just like we think about flying machines or living on another planet. It was basically science fiction.
In a short time, however, it became clear that it was a revolutionary idea. In a moment we are at 11 March 1986. From a project of the American engineer Charles Hull, stereolithography is officially patented. The first form of 3D-printing becomes reality.
But let’s start with the basics.
3D-printing is the construction of three-dimensional objects by additive manufacturing, namely adding material layer-by-layer, on the basis of a digital 3D model.
One of the most fascinating points of this technology immediately emerges: it is a very simple concept with a unique versatility, starting from the materials. The most common use is related to moldable plastics, convenient because they melt at relatively low temperatures, but in some specific 3D-printing variants resins are also used, as well as metals and even some types of ceramics.
And that’s not all. After being able to create simple tissues, in 2019 the first bio-printed vascularized heart was presented at the University of Tel Aviv, and it was even created with a “personal” bio-ink. It’s too small and its cells have yet to learn to contract together in order to pump blood, but the road to artificial creation of entire functioning organs is shorter than we think.
The applications of 3D printing doesn’t even stop at biotechnologies, indeed they range from the nautical industry to the construction industry, up to jewellery-making.
Imagine, for example, what we could do if it was possible and cheap to build a house in 24 hours, and an entire city in a week. What impact could it have in the poorest areas of the world or in areas affected by natural disasters?
The social and the economic dimensions are enormous. To put it in numbers, it’s estimated that by 2025 the additive manufacturing industry will bring revenues of 24 billion dollars (source Grand View Research), and in the meantime the number of printers for personal use will almost double (source Context).
The reason for this rapid and incredible spread is simple. With the expiry of the patent in 2009 and the resulting reduction in costs, a common 3D-printer has come to cost as much as a traditional printer; also, excluding examples at the highest level, this technology can be extremely easy to use.
We had a taste of it while dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic.
Continuing his article David Jones wrote that the whole process is in fact a sort of joyful three-dimensional doodling. How could he imagine that we wouldn’t only create doodles and “geeky” gadgets, but protection devices that are currently saving our lives.
Since January, when the demand for protection devices started growing exponentially, the traditional industry has failed to respond with sufficient supply.
The Italian spotlight was then redirected on 3D-printing, after a sequence of events that happened at the Mellini Hospital in Chiari (Brescia). The doctors, short of respiratory valves, needed a quick solution to save the lives of the patients in intensive care. So the hospital came into contact with the engineer Cristian Fracassi, who in 24 hours was able to print a hundred copies of the original valve, to be used immediately.
Among the first to mobilize were the so-called makers. Defined as the digital hobbyists of the 21st century, they are artisans 2.0, technology enthusiasts and innovators. After the beginning of the emergency they managed to connect in groups and communities, creating a network in support of health systems in crisis.
Amongthe various associations certainly emerges VISIONARI ETS-APS, which brings together many makers but also 3D printing laboratories, de facto creating one of the largest non-profit associations in our territory.
With the project VISIONARI-MakeIT, make in Italy for Italy, volunteers are working to produce protective visors and much more, which however cannot be considered medical devices. Thousands have been requested and delivered throughout the country, from doctors to business owners. The project is still active and many makers are starting to develop products that will be useful in the coming months.
After a while universities also joined the work in progress.
A virtuous example comes from theUniversity of Genoa. There a team of three Phd students led by Professor Niccolò Casiddu is working to reproduce the valves designed by Fracassi, as well as a “prothesis” for doorknobs that allows to open the door with the elbow, reducing risks of contamination.
Similarly has moved the Polytechnic of Turin, which, in addition to producing masks and visors with the Molinette Hospital, is performing in the Piedmont territory an important function of control and review of the projects that arise from private people, ensuring safety of the devices.
Fundamental also is the activity of the UniversityFederico II of Naples, which is working to speed up the procedures related to testing and certification of the products, one of the main problems concerning the use of these technologies in high-risk health environments, as well as regulation of production and distribution on territories.
But what will happen in the future? Is all of this going to end with the pandemic?
Unfortunately, in recent years the potential of 3D printing has been decidedly underestimated. Many are the problematics, from the lack of official training and institutions that guarantee certificates, to the need to enable specialized technicians. As a result, most of the makers are self-taught and unrecognized, while the numerous job offers remain unsatisfied.
But as we’ve seen, in the 3D printing industry, nothing is actually impossible. Thanks to the union of these large groups of makers we could also aim at training in schools.
3D printing could get into any one of our homes. Design and production skills could become necessary in any field. It is essential in the coming years to continue to innovate and to form professionals, in order to build a new business and social fabric that will help our country.
A pity – David Jones wrote – that the whole process must take place in the dark. Not a perfect detail, dear David, and not only for technical reasons.
All of this is happening right before our eyes, under the sunlight, and deserves proper attention.
It’s future becoming reality.
Francesca Biglia Fabrizio Giaconella