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Wondering Stories: Ghent University

How 3D printers can also make your business more sustainable.

Remember those first 3D printers, twenty years ago? You could print the craziest gadgets with them. The possibilities seemed endless. Today, 3D printing has outgrown its infancy and is increasingly becoming a lever for sustainability. Companies can now attend a workshop at UGent's design.nexus research group to see how 3D printing can help them too.

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The fact that UGent plays a pioneering role in this is due to the perfect match between two industrial designers who found each other in Kortrijk. He, Yannick Christiaens, strong in product styling and design. She, Francesca Ostuzzi, an Italian with a heart for sustainability who came to Belgium eight years ago, saw the potential of 3D printing at the time, but was somewhat frustrated.

Francesca: 'In Milan, we had an open lab where anyone could come and do 3D printing. That way, the general public could get acquainted with the technology and we as researchers got to see different techniques. That was the intention, after all. But I saw how 3D printing was only used for gadgets. I could understand that: it was new and exciting, but I was left feeling hungry. I especially saw the possibilities in terms of sustainability.'

Yannick: 'I want to make meaningful things, not trinkets just for the joy of printing.'

Lots of applications

Meaningful things and stories abound at UGent campus Kortrijk, where Francesca and Yannick settled down with their research group. They show how 3D printing has more and more applications and has penetrated our lives, often without us realising it. These range from orthotics to artificial hips, from horse riding helmets to parts of coffee machines to a part of a drum kit or a ship's propeller. We also see one of the latest realisations there: a curved platform made of plastic on which you can lie down and whose connection pieces have been 3D-printed. The thing turns out to have a special function.

Yannick: 'This is the test version of a device used in breast cancer treatment. Women have to lie on it in a kind of crawl position, which allows for better and more direct irradiation, without damaging healthy tissue. Masters and PhD students from our department developed this, at the suggestion of the medical community. We have made about 20 of them, which are now being tested in different hospitals.'

It immediately shows why 3D printing has already had a major breakthrough in the medical world: you can literally work on a patient's measurements at a - comparatively - much lower cost. Think prostheses, dental crowns, even many hearing aids now come from a 3D printer.

It seems logical that industry too is increasingly recognising and exploiting the benefits.

Francesca: 'In the traditional industry, you first have to develop a model, which costs very much, and then you have to produce enough to recoup that model. But then you just have endless identical copies that have to serve everyone. With 3D printing, the cost per copy is higher, but you don't have the cost of developing a model.'

'The car industry is also rapidly moving towards 3D printing,' says Yannick: 'We worked with the big Japanese player in the car industry Honda for a project. When Honda exports cars to Europe, there are always parts that do not conform to the European market. Yet those have to stay in during shipping, otherwise the car wouldn't work and the electronics would get messed up. With 3D printing, we can prepare those parts here just in time.'

It is a project that puts the industrial design engineer to the test: the requirements in terms of look and feel are very high in the car industry, much higher than for, say, a new part of a washing machine.

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Print at home too

Recent years have also seen more and more reports showing how important 3D printing can become in a sustainable story. And it can do so in several ways: Repair (e.g. printing a defective part on site), Reduce (working more efficiently and therefore more sustainably and cheaply) and Rethink (reinventing the whole product and associated system, from the possibilities of 3D printing).

Francesca gives the example of household electrical appliances. 'With the current energy crisis, people are quick to think: I'm going to buy a new coffee maker or fridge, because a piece is broken and the new models use less energy. You have to realise: producing new appliances, taking them to retailers and sometimes even having them delivered to your door requires much more energy than repairing an existing appliance. And thanks to 3D printing, this can be done quickly and sustainably. You let the retailer know what part you need, so they can 3D-print it for you. On demand, without having to stockpile it yourself or have that one part transferred from a larger warehouse, let alone send the whole device.'

'Or you can just print it yourself, at home,' Yannick adds. '3D home printers have gotten a lot better in recent years, and cheaper too. Meanwhile, the codes you need can be found on specialised websites. In time, you might be able to download that code from the manufacturer's website, for a small fee. Only advantages: the consumer is helped quickly and does not have to buy a new appliance immediately, even if it has been out of stock for a long time. The manufacturer does not have to stock and stockpile spare parts.'

Workshops for companies

Ten years ago, The Economist headlined that 3D printing would bring about a new industrial revolution. That proved a bit premature at the time, Yannick realises: "In the excitement of the early years, expectations were created that were not realistic. That we could 3D print everything, that there were no limits. And that while the first printers still had teething problems and the materials you could print with were not that good. Printing complex things really wasn't possible yet. All this made companies' first introduction to 3D printing a disappointment. It seemed like hype, and to some people it still is. But in recent years the quality has improved enormously, even for smaller budgets the machines have become much better and also cheaper.'

Since last year, UGent designers have been visiting companies to, at least, plant a seed.

Yannick: 'Companies that want to work on sustainable entrepreneurship and want to know how 3D printing can help them do so can book us for a workshop. Sometimes they are completely unaware of the possibilities of 3D printing - it all evolves so quickly - but there are also companies that are already working on it and don't really know where they stand. It is not our intention to design or program for them, but we help them explore the possibilities and plot a course.'

Text and image: Revista

The 3 trumps of 3D printing

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