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Price commoditisation to drive 3D printing at scale

It’s fundamental to put in place the building blocks now for the 3D printing market to thrive in the future, both from an Africa and global perspective.

This was the sentiment shared by Bradley Pulford, vice-president and MD of HP Africa, speaking to South African media on the side-lines of the HP Amplify Executive Forum in Dubai this week.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a technique that uses a device to create physical objects from digital models. The range of 3D-printable materials has grown significantly over the years, making the technology appealing to a wider array of industries.

Market research firm IDTechEx forecasts the 3D printing industry will surpass $41 billion by 2033.

HP is among the major multinational corporations that have entered the 3D printing space, with the company previously stating its ambitions to participate in the highly-lucrative industry.

Commenting on the future outlook of 3D printing, Pulford noted the technology is extremely relevant and exciting. “I think it’s going to be the most disruptive technology that we’ll see for some time to come.”

Bradley Pulford, vice-president and MD of HP Africa.

Bradley Pulford, vice-president and MD of HP Africa.

However, he believes a few things still need to happen, which is scale and commoditisation of pricing around 3D print, as it’s still very expensive. “We need to see that proliferate somewhat; we need to see some scale and commoditisation of pricing coming to the market.”

Once this has happened, the world will start seeing a lot of acceleration of 3D printing in three sectors, one being manufacturing. “Car manufacturers, for example, that want to print parts – this is an area we’re seeing a lot of acceleration and interest in, even in Africa,” he said.

Healthcare is another area. “Our response during the pandemic was that we printed a number of medical/healthcare parts to take care and assist during the pandemic.”

In 2019, the “3D Printing in the Medical and Dental Industry 2019-2029” report identified 3D printing tech as key to the development of the medical industry.

Pulford added that the third area, where the benefits of 3D printing are already being witnessed, is in the field of orthotics. “A number of pilots are happening in this area. We’re also printing all of the soles that go into the sneakers of a very large brand.

“There’s been huge progress but I think it’s still very niche, however, and very tailored at the moment to those three verticals. We need to see that proliferate more and that will only happen as we start to commoditise some of the prices.

“I think this will happen through microfluidics and metal fusion – these are the areas that will start to disrupt and help with that commoditisation in the future.

“It [3D printing] is very important for Southern Africa strategically, but I think we’re still a couple years away from where it’s driving a significant difference.”

Slow uptake of 3D printing hasn’t deterred South African organisations and education institutes from showcasing notable use cases for 3D printing.

In 2020, engineers at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) designed and developed portable 3D-printed mechanical ventilators, in an effort to step up the fight against COVID-19. The portable UJ ventilator allowed off-grid operations for up to one-and-a-half hours.

Earlier that year, the higher learning institution created open source, cheap ventilators to help fight the pandemic.

UJ’s Library Makerspace division developed 3D-printed surgical face shields, in an effort to meet the rapidly-growing need for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers at the height of the pandemic.

This year, UJ also showcased a model of a six-room RDP house, revealing it was built in a day using 3D printing. This, explained the university, is in line with efforts to address SA’s social housing backlog.

As part of the 2019 Women’s Month activities, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) showcased some of the breakthroughs made by its female researchers, using the world’s largest 3D printer, which is housed at the CSIR.

The 3D printer uses a powder bed fusion process called selective laser melting, where a 5kW laser melts titanium powder. A bed of powder is added for each layer and the subsequent layers are fused through the selective laser melting.

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