3D predictions for 2017

A growing area of 3D printing (3DP) applications in 2017 will be in culture preservation and artwork restoration. The technology has already been used to reconstruct numerous ancient objects including a 16th century Mercator globe, a Mayan temple, a Lisbon statue, historic buildings in France and London, an Egyptian mummy’s face, and a 17th Century shipwreck near Drumbeg in Scotland.

In June 2016 a gathering of heritage professionals was introduced to 3DP by Ghent University’s Department of Geography, during European Development Days in Brussels. This will help fuel rapid growth in this area in 2017. The scope is truly immense, with the future possibility of a mass market for facsimile works of art.

There’s also a potential for a 3D printing bureau to tap into a demand from ordinary consumers wanting to preserve fading family heirlooms and keepsakes.

The medical sector announced several landmark achievements in 2016. 3DP can now construct human tissues on a scale suitable for large scale laboratory testing, removing the need for many animal experiments. There’s little doubt we‘ll see many more kinds of “organ in a test-tube” in 2017.

The construction of skin, blood vessels, bone, muscle and simple organs for actual transplant is also progressing rapidly. We’re told it could take 10-15 years before we see viable livers and hearts, but there have already been transplants of a printed bladder and thyroid. We expect new breakthroughs in the coming year.

Many early demonstrations of 3D printers chose unsophisticated fantasy figures that were somewhat unimpressive, but since 2012, Minecraft gamers have been able to 3D print chunks of their elaborate digital block-worlds. This could propel Minecraft out of the virtual world and into competition with platforms like Warcraft and Lego, opening a huge new market for 3DP in the arena of serious leisure modelling.

The block nature of Minecraft means gamers can easily be served by a 3D printing service. Minecraft, as MIT developer, Cody Sumter says, has “tricked 40 million people into learning to use a CAD program”.

Back in the real world, the US Energy Department announced several exciting programs in September 2016, during an Industry Day at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, including a 3D printed building and vehicle. Similar constructions have already been made in China and Japan. While these are proof-of-principle demonstrations rather than commercial enterprises, we expect to see more big scale achievements this year.

2017 will also see accelerating uptake of 3DP in marine engineering which, strangely, has been lagging behind the aeronautical and automobile industries. A Dutch consortium finished a pilot at the end of 2016, which studied ‘3D Printing of Marine Spares’. Onboard a ship, there is often no access to urgent spares or the workshops needed to construct them, so 3DP is surely guaranteed to find a firm niche here. The US, Korea and China have all recently launched projects.

Lastly, one area often predicted to take up 3DP is the fashion industry. We don’t expect to see a huge upsurge in home constructed garments anytime soon, but 3DP is less wasteful in materials than conventional manufacturing and saves time by eliminating steps between design and production, so traditional manufacturers are trying 3DP to reduce waste, labour and production times. Nike and Dreamworks are one surprising new partnership entering this field.

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