DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - FRONT PAGE -

The tech­nol­ogy of 3D ‘bioprinting' (the med­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of 3D print­ing to pro­duce liv­ing tis­sue and or­gans) is ad­vanc­ing so quickly that it will spark a ma­jor eth­i­cal de­bate on its use by 2016, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy re­search and ad­vi­sory com­pany firm Gart­ner.

At the same time, 3D print­ing of non­liv­ing med­i­cal de­vices such as pros­thetic limbs, com­bined with a bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion and in­suf­fi­cient lev­els of health­care in emerg­ing mar­kets, is likely to cause an ex­plo­sion in de­mand for the tech­nol­ogy by 2015.

“Three-D bioprinting fa­cil­i­ties with the abil­ity to print hu­man or­gans and tis­sue will ad­vance far faster than gen­eral un­der­stand­ing and ac­cep­tance of the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this tech­nol­ogy,” said Pete Basiliere, re­search di­rec­tor at Gart­ner.

Al­ready in Au­gust 2013, the Hangzhou Di­anzi Univer­sity in China an­nounced it had in­vented the bio­ma­te­rial 3D printer Regen­ovo, which printed a small work­ing kid­ney that lasted four months. Ear­lier in 2013, a two-year-old child in the US re­ceived a wind­pipe built with her own stem cells.

Basiliere says: “These ini­tia­tives are well-in­ten­tioned, but raise a num­ber of ques­tions that re­main unan­swered. What hap­pens when com­plex ‘en­hanced' or­gans in­volv­ing non­hu­man cells are made? Who will con­trol the abil­ity to pro­duce them? Who will en­sure the qual­ity of the re­sult­ing or­gans?”

Nev­er­the­less, the day when 3D-bio­printed hu­man or­gans are read­ily avail­able is draw­ing closer, and will re­sult in a com­plex de­bate in­volv­ing a great many po­lit­i­cal, moral and fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests.

As 3D print­ing tech­nol­ogy continues to ma­ture, its abil­ity to build cus­tom­ized hu­man anatom­i­cal parts has per­va­sive ap­peal in med­i­cal de­vice mar­kets – es­pe­cially in eco­nom­i­cally weak and war-torn re­gions – where it ad­dresses high de­mand for pros­thetic and other med­i­cal de­vices.

In ad­di­tion, in­creas­ing fa­mil­iar­ity within the ma­te­rial sci­ences and com­put­er­aug­mented de­sign ser­vices sec­tors, and in­te­gra­tion with health­care and hos­pi­tals, will fur­ther in­crease de­mand from 2015 on­wards.

“The over­all suc­cess rates of 3D print­ing in emerg­ing re­gions will es­ca­late for three main rea­sons: the in­creas­ing ease of ac­cess and com­modi­ti­sa­tion of the tech­nol­ogy; ROI; and be­cause it sim­pli­fies sup­ply chain is­sues with get­ting med­i­cal de­vices to these re­gions,” says Basiliere.

“Other pri­mary driv­ers are a large pop­u­la­tion base with in­ad­e­quate ac­cess to health­care, in re­gions of­ten marred by in­ter­nal con­flicts, wars or ter­ror­ism.”

Out­side the med­i­cal mar­ket, 3D print­ing will also bring about ma­jor changes and chal­lenges. Gart­ner pre­dicts that by 2018, at least seven of the world's top 10 mul­ti­chan­nel re­tail­ers will be us­ing 3D print­ing tech­nol­ogy to gen­er­ate cus­tom stock or­ders, at the same time as en­tirely new busi­ness mod­els are built on the tech­nol­ogy.

“Some re­tail­ers are al­ready sell­ing 3D print­ers to con­sumers, and as they be­come more read­ily avail­able, con­sumers could use them to man­u­fac­ture their own cus­tom-de­signed prod­ucts,” says Miriam Burt, re­search vice pres­i­dent at Gart­ner.

“We also ex­pect to see 3D copy­ing ser­vices and 3D print­ing bu­reaus emerge where cus­tomers bring 3D mod­els to a re­tailer or provider and have in­creas­ingly high-end parts and de­signs printed, not just in plas­tics but in ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing ceram­ics, stain­less steel, and cobalt and ti­ta­nium al­loys.”

The rapid emer­gence of this tech­nol­ogy will also cre­ate ma­jor chal­lenges in re­la­tion to in­tel­lec­tual property (IP) theft. Gart­ner pre­dicts that by 2018, 3D print­ing will re­sult in the loss of at least $100 bil­lion per year in IP glob­ally.

“The very fac­tors that fos­ter in­no­va­tion – crowd­sourc­ing, R&D pool­ing and fund­ing of start-ups – cou­pled with shorter prod­uct life cy­cles, pro­vide a fer­tile ground for in­tel­lec­tual property theft us­ing 3D print­ers,” says Basiliere. “Al­ready, it's pos­si­ble to 3D print many items, in­clud­ing toys, ma­chine and au­to­mo­tive parts, and even weapons.”

In this en­vi­ron­ment, businesses will find it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to fully mon­e­tise their in­ven­tions, and li­censees of re­lated IP will be less able to achieve the max­i­mum ben­e­fit of their li­censes.

IP thieves will have re­duced prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and sup­ply chain costs, en­abling them to sell coun­ter­feit goods at a dis­count, while un­sus­pect­ing cus­tomers are at risk of poorly per­form­ing and pos­si­bly even dan­ger­ous prod­ucts.

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