World Economic Forum views 3D printing as key technology

As the 3D printing is about to enter the mainstream, the World Economic Forum (WEF) takes note. They asked more than 800 executives and experts from the information and communications technology sector about their expectations on 21 tipping points. Here are the experts’ views on how 3D printing will change manufacturing and medicine in the years to come.

3D printing has come a long way in the past three decades. As the technology is about to enter the mainstream, the World Economic Forum (WEF) takes note. In their 2015 Technological Tipping Point Survey, WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Software & Society asked more than 800 executives and experts from the information and communications technology sector about their expectations on 21 tipping points. These tipping points mark the moments when specific technological shifts occur. Here are the experts’ views on how 3D printing will change manufacturing and medicine in the years to come.

One of the megatrends identified in the study is the digitization of matter, which includes 3D printing and additive manufacturing techniques. The majority of the respondents (84 %) expected the first 3D printed car to be in production by 2025. This is almost a decade later than what industry announcements say: Just this week, Local Motors stated that it will sell its first 3D printed car in 2016 and plans to ship their first fleet of road-ready vehicles in 2017. The experts surveyed by Global Agenda Council furthermore believe that the first 3D printed liver will be implanted in 2025.

The report lists a series of positive impacts expected from 3D printing and manufacturing, including accelerated product development, growth in open-source plans to print a range of 
objects, the birth of a new industry supplying printing materials, a rise in entrepreneurial opportunities and 
environmental benefits from reduced transportation 
requirements.

Expected negative impacts of 3D printing in the industrial sector include an increase in waste and further burden on the environment, job losses in a disrupted industry and piracy, among others. The prediction that any innovation can be instantly copied was both seen as a positive and a negative.

Another focal point of the WEF Global Agenda survey was 3D printing and human health. The first transplant of a 3D printed liver is expected by 2024 and one year later, in 2025, more than three quarters (76 %) of respondents anticipated this event to have occurred.

Among the positive projected impacts are a reduction in the shortage of donated organs, a growth of personalized medicine and prosthetic printing and fundamental changes in drug testing due to the availability of printed human organs. Even though doesn’t quite fit into the category of medical printing and bioprinting, the Global Agenda Council also considered food printing. Here, the report states that 3D printing could improve food security without giving further details on how this may be achieved.

Of course, there is a flipside, showing the less desirable potential impacts of 3D printing in the health and food sectors. One concern is the uncontrolled and unregulated production of body parts, medical equipment or food. Major ethical debates are expected centering on control and quality assurance of future printed body parts. 3D printing could also provide counterproductive incentives to healthy lifestyles – if any body part can be replaced, who would want to live a wholesome life and eat and drink in moderation?

While medical and food printing poses several ethical dilemmas and confronts societies with difficult questions, 3D printed consumer products are less controversial. By 2025, a vast majority (81 %) of respondents expect 5 % of consumer products to be 3D printed. The 3D printer will be a home and office appliance, the report states. 3D printing will not only allow for personalized products but also reduce transportation costs.

Even though expectations that 3D printed goods will become part of the economy are high, there are some predicted drawbacks. The adaptation of 3D printing could result in a major disruption of production controls, consumer regulations, trade barriers and patents, among others. Gun control is also a common concern as desktop 3D printers could be misused to print unregulated firearms. However, the trend seems to be in full swing: According to the report, almost 133000 3D printers were shipped worldwide in 2014, a 68 % plus compared to 2013.