In the early 2000s, additive manufacturing (AM), moved away from its origins in rapid prototyping and into public consciousness. Visionaries expected AM would enable mass market customization and personalization. Roll forward 20 years, and reality is more prosaic. While AM technology progressed significantly, its applications remain confined to professional spheres, with medical applications being an area of much development. Numerous AM approaches are deployed in existing specialty medical applications. Key AM application areas have emerged: medical models; implants; tools, instruments, and parts for medical devices; medical aids, supportive guides, splints, and prostheses; and biomanufacturing.
In terms of specific AM approaches, laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) is used to construct replacement hip and knee joints, in dental applications, and for surgical guides. Vat polymerisation is used to produce biocompatible implants. Fused deposition modelling (FDM) is used for structural prosthetic applications, and material jetting for development of medical models and teaching aids. In addition, researchers continue to push the boundaries of medical science and biotechnology using AM. In 2021, the Fraunhofer Institute announced it had created a prosthetic eye using AM.
For maximum utility, scenarios should describe plausible future worlds that collectively reflect uncertainty about how the future will play out. Scenarios must describe pathways of a particular technology and the world surrounding that technology. Numerous methods can be used to construct scenarios, but they all involve analysis of critical uncertainties. External uncertainties include availability of raw materials, environmental regulations, standardization, international trade patterns, industry acceptance, cost of competing technologies, and breakthroughs in enabling or adjacent technologies. In addition, the pace and direction of AM technology itself remains unclear. Will there be any technological breakthroughs? Will the cost of AM machinery decrease?
The following two scenarios explore critical applications and growth areas for AM in the next 15 to 20 years and how deeply AM will impact industries and consumers.
Two simple future scenarios describe AM’s place in industry and society in 2040. One scenario – Revolutionary Niches – assumes the cost of AM remains high, and geopolitical divisions prevent sharing of know-how and materials. The other scenario – Industry Transformation – assumes the cost of AM will be reduced significantly, that sharing of AM know-how will increase, and supply chains for materials will be open, enabling a wide, visible deployment of AM.
Scenario A: Revolutionary Niches. Although mainstream industry was slow in accepting AM through the 2030s, its use has been transformational in niches. AM has the most impact on non-cost-sensitive applications, underpinning numerous cutting-edge products and systems. It also enables easy repair of expensive infrastructure. In medical applications, it enabled the production of previously unexpected components with incredible physical and functional properties, but many of the technical advances remain closely guarded secrets. In 2040, AM is a strategic technology for governments and large companies, but its impact remains unseen for many, and its penetration into mainstream applications is still limited.
Scenario B: Industry Transformation. Competition between AM equipment providers was hectic through 2030. Although advances in enabling technologies were slow, international cooperation increased, leading to cohesive development of standards and practices. A cohesive push by the AM industry meant that by the early 2030s, key industries started implementing AM across their supply chains, producing parts for large-scale customization and repair – not only across high-end applications, but also consumer-facing industries. Getting a metal part printed by a service department is now commonplace. A global drive towards the circular economy fueled this activity. Many manufacturers help their customers repair products, rather than dispose of them. In turn, this situation helps those manufacturers meet strict environmental goals. As it stands in 2040, repair trumps replace.
Implications of each scenario
Imagining these scenarios enables an evaluation of AM growth areas. In a world where Revolutionary Niches exist, it’s easy to foresee AM enabling major advances in advanced medical manufacturing. Functional medical implants and prosthetics will see major advancement but will only be used to treat critical patients. In this scenario, developments in bioprinting will enable the first prototype printed replacement organs for humans. Specialty technology companies and laboratories will develop these highly-advanced medical approaches, outsourcing services to healthcare providers. In this scenario, AM will transform some surgical procedures and the treatment of complex diseases.
In a world where Industry Transformation becomes the model, the use of AM implants and prosthetics will increase exponentially. Simple medical devices are produced at point-of-use by hospitals and clinics, driven by a need to reduce environmental footprint and cost. In this scenario, people receiving hip and tooth replacements will likely receive a personalized implant made using AM, transforming aspects of healthcare provision across hospitals and surgeries.
The real future is unlikely to mirror these scenarios exactly. In both scenarios, adoption of AM increases significantly. The real question is how pervasive the technology will become. No matter how the real future plays out, these scenarios suggest medical applications are highly likely to be at the epicenter of AM advancement.
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