IDC: Canadian health-care firms, automakers should grasp 3D printing opp

Canada’s automotive and health-care industries are missing a trick by not making more use of 3D printing, says IDC. The nascent technology category, quickly adopted by hobbyist consumers, has significant potential for specialist businesses.

IDC released the first two reports in a new subscription service around 3D printing. The reports found the use of 3D printing technology in these sectors “underwhelming”, and blamed it on several barriers.

One of the most significant was a lack of knowledge and expertise, explained George Bulat, research director for client hardware at IDC Canada.

“3D print service bureaus have the capability to produce products for a variety of industries however they do not necessarily have expertise in these industries,” he said. “As a result, there is a reluctance for industry to use these third party services even though they may be beneficial.” In short, the 3D printing industry hasn’t developed to a sophisticated enough level to serve specialist verticals in a systematic fashion.

Bulat sees opportunities for 3D printing in various sectors, which he said have been experimenting with the technology long before the likes of MakerBot bought the technology to the consumer sector.

Aerospace, defense, education, arts and entertainment, and obviously some areas of manufacturing, are all exploring these technologies. “While consumer applications will expand over time, for the near future commercial sectors will continue to dominate,” he said.

UPS is already offering 3D printing services to customers, and has expanded the number of participating outlets. GE is using the technology to make nozzles, and Boeing prints parts for its planes. Nike prints sports parts, and Hersheys is developing a 3D printer for chocolate.

In a particularly interesting move, American Pearl Jewellery lets people design their own jewellery online. It then prints a personalised mould and creates the custom piece for shipping. This concept of 3D printing for personalised manufacturing holds huge promise for consumer-focused manufacturers.

The automotive business is focused on 3D printing for preproduction, although it’s probing some possibilities in the production and aftersales areas, the report said. Production-level applications are limited by issues including build size and speed, and the quality of the end product.

3D printing could transform the aftermarket segment of the auto industry, if only companies can get it right, Bulat’s report suggests. Printing parts directly at the authorized dealer’s store could be a revolutionary application, but as it stands, Canada’s automakers are lagging those in the US.

In the healthcare business, practitioners are focused on existing applications for 3D printing rather than exploring new ones. Nevertheless, there are some signs of innovation. The report cites Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto, which is 3D printing human skin, and Mount Sinai, which is printing replacement joints for orthopedic surgery.

Bulat doesn’t see many regulatory hurdles for 3D printing at present in the healthcare sector, because many of the current applications focus on non-invasive or external use, such as pre-surgery mock-ups, for example. However, things are likely to change in the future as the industry becomes more exploratory.

“It’s understandable that as 3D printing evolves away from niche applications and becomes more mainstream, an appropriate set of standards is called for to address how the finished products and materials hold up,” he suggested.

At present, the more far-reaching applications are limited in scope, which reduces the regulatory problems associated with them.

“The few medical / dental use cases that are invasive (such as joint replacement) are being produced with materials that have already been approved by the healthcare regulatory board,” he said. “Applications such as skin printing and organ printing may face regulatory hurdles, but because they are currently in early experimental/clinical trials are not a strong inhibitor to adoption.”

IDC will produce a broader report on the size of the 3D printing industry in Canada later this year.

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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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