3D printing – the future of construction?

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Moataz Attallah
Recorded: 21/07/2014
Broadcast: 01/09/2014

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: So we’re here today with Dr Moataz Attallah who’s a Professor in Advanced Materials Processing in the School of Metallurgy and Materials. So, can you tell us a little bit about what you do here at the university and what your research is in?

Moataz: My research involves assessing and studying a number of advanced manufacturing processes, typically referred to as a resource efficient manufacturing approach, which means that you’re trying to minimise the amount of waste produced from these techniques. One of them is the commonly known technique as 3D printing, or sometimes called additive manufacturing, which involves using layers of material, building the structures through construction of layers of materials to grow the structure from bottom upwards.   

Sam: So you’re giving a talk at the British Science Festival. 

Moataz: Yeah, yeah.

Sam: And the talk is called Printing Planes, Cars and Houses, all about the future of 3D printing. 

Moataz: That's right.

Sam: Now where does the scale start on 3D printing? I mean is it endless or where are the restrictions?

Moataz: Well 3D printing started in the 1980s. At that time it used to be referred to as rapid prototyping where companies were able to use it, for instance, to visualise the shape of the component or a component they’re about to make. But then during the last ten years the technology has evolved from the prototyping level to the manufacturing level, specifically when it started to move from plastics to metallic materials. My interest specifically is in the field of high value additive manufacturing , meaning that we use additive manufacturing to produce components for aeroplanes or for cars. Other people of course have interest in using 3D printing to print homes for instance and that’s where the future is going to be like. I think within the coming ten years we’re going to see a significant development in this field, exactly in the same way that mobile phones have progressed within the last ten years. Probably not to the level that every house will have a 3D printer but I would expect that specifically for the metallic 3D printing systems, we’re going to see some centres around the country exactly like the communications centres in the past which used to have fax machines and printers. Exactly in the same way you will have centres for people who would like to print a plumbing part for instance for their house or a spare part for the car which is not being used anymore. They will take the component to that design centre or engineering centre where they will print the part and leave with it on the same day. Everything will change so in the future we won’t be buying products from the internet, you may be buying for instance computer models for the parts you would like to make and then take it to another place where they can print it for you directly. 

Sam: So the scale of these kind of printing projects is kind of endless really. I mean did you mention houses that you can print with?

Moataz: Yes, yes.  I mean there are some projects, one big project which was launched in China where they managed to print a house out of concrete within the same day. The technology itself is the same. The name 3D printing involves anything that uses a computer model to generate a structure. So based on the computer model, based on a deposition tool which will either deposit plastics or deposit molten metal or deposit even concrete, that will create what we call a 3D printed structure. In the future for instance we’d expect also people to be able to design their own home, see how they want it to be like and then we’ll have large machines which will be fed with concrete, sand and gravel and cement and then these machines will be printing houses in a more efficient way, much faster than how we see it nowadays. 

Sam: This seems like a sort of fantastic revolution in manufacturing. How much of this is in use already and what’s the kind of limitations that we’ve got at the moment?

Moataz: I think within the last two years people started officially to use the name ‘the third industrial revolution’. Even if you look into some magazines they publish a number of special issues on that topic. The technology itself is in use in a number of sectors in fact, specifically the medical sector probably was the first one to embrace this technology. The technology enabled the development of what we call customised implants. In the past, if you’re making a hip implant you can buy an off the shelf implant which can work for some patients but may not work for another. Now, the technology enabled us to produce implants specifically tailored for patients, or specifically also tailored to address very complex injuries, for instance that happens in the battlefield or for athletes for instance, so this is already in production. There are companies making medical implants and there are other places which are also specialised in the manufacture of customised medical implants for special injuries. 

Sam: So presumably this new technology is going to require a whole new skill set in the industry. How is the industry dealing with that?

Moataz: Well at the moment the industry is dealing with this through the use of other trained engineers who do not actually, who have not used additive manufacturing but they have used similar techniques that they can apply into this field. However, our idea here at the University of Birmingham is that we’re trying through our research programmes and our undergraduate programmes to train the future engineers and scientists who will be able to address this technology from a more specialised aspect. So we train PhD students on different projects which all happen to be with major companies to use the technology, to also develop the technology for a certain product and also to be aware of all the dimensions associated with this technology, for instance the performance of the components that are being made, the business case or the economics of making a part like this by additive manufacturing.  So we are looking after that here at the university. 

Sam: So there’s an exciting new application of this 3D technology for use of medical implants that you’re working on isn’t there?

Moataz: Yes. One important advantage, or one of the significant advantages of additive manufacturing is that it enables us to create a manufactured component to achieve a certain function rather than ‘because this is the way we can make it’. In the past, engineers always when they think about a product they think about how we can make that product. We call that to design a product for its manufacturability. But since the introduction of additive manufacturing and 3D printing, people now are more open to the idea of making a component which is very complex to achieve a certain function. In the medical implant sector, one of the developments that was achieved by 3D printing was that 3D printing enabled us to print very specialised patterns on the surface of the medical implants. These patterns enable bone growth into the implants and they will improve and increase the implant life at the end. We call this travicular structures, they are like engineered structures that sit on the surface of an implant and warm cells would find it more favourable to draw into them. So one of the projects I have is looking into the development of novel implants in order to increase the implant life. In addition to that we want the implant just to be a little bit more than just an implant. We want the implant also to deliver drugs. So the way we’re doing it is that we’re making complex medical implants. Those medical implants will have within them special features and these features will be filled with drugs, things like antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs. And then throughout the life of the implant the implant will leak locally, the antibiotics and the anti-inflammatory drugs, to increase the implant life. Typically when somebody has an implant added into their body or implanted, they usually have to take things like antibiotics to decrease the risk of infection. What we’re trying to introduce now is a localised infection of these antibiotics very close to where actually the implant is, rather than having the antibiotic taken orally or through the blood for instance and then circulates all across the body before it reaches to the location where it’s highly likely to be infected. 

Sam: Fantastic. So what’s in the future for 3D printing?

Moataz: In the media you can find all sorts of news about 3D printing. For instance, the 3D printing of guns, this was on for quite some time but then luckily recently I think the Home Office looked into 3D printing of guns, trying to look into the danger from doing that and what they have realised is that actually the 3D printed guns, they pose a risk to the user actually more than anyone else in fact because they’re all made out of plastics and as such they won’t be able to take the local explosion it takes from the bullet and will disintegrate actually before being able to fire anything. So yeah, I mean you will find news about 3D printing and people will always have potential hopes in the technology but also people have some doubts and some suspicion that this might develop into something harmful to the people, but I’d say that in the future I don’t think this will be the case. 3D printing will only be used by people who know how to use it and it will also be able to only be used for the required useful application at the end. 

Sam: Fantastic. Well it seems like the potential for 3D printing is really quite endless and it kind of seems hard to predict what’s going to happen next isn’t it? So Dr Moataz Attallah, thanks very much. 

Moataz: Thank you very much. Thank you. 

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.