The Middle East’s intellectual – and physical – landscape is set to change shape in the coming years, with the advent of 3D-printed technologies.
With fast-evolving techniques, applications and printed materials, including metals, the emerging sector is becoming a critical tool from prototyping to final production across global industries.
In April 2016, Dubai announced its ambitious plan to become an international leader in 3D printing, transforming not only the city itself, but surrounding regions and the world. The country’s ruler, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, has committed the city to printing 25% of all buildings using 3D printing technology by 2030.
The emirate also unveiled the International Centre for 3D Printing, a hub for design and technology suppliers, as well as factories. Targeted mainly at the construction, medical and consumer products sectors, it includes research and development centres and laboratories for testing materials used in 3D-printed products.
“The future will depend on 3D printing technologies in all aspects of our lives – the houses we live in, the streets we use, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear and the food we eat,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
Key to the incubation of the emirate’s fledgling 3D printing industry is the newly established Dubai Future Foundation, a strategy unit tasked with developing a futuristic roadmap of key sectors for Dubai and facilitating public-private partnerships for design, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Saif Al Aleeli, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, said 3D printing is already used in the production of large and complicated objects such as aircraft engines and furniture. “These are complicated objects that require precise specifications and lots of customisation. That’s why 3D printing makes sense for medicine, printing custom casts of bones, joints and teeth.”
“There is also a rapid and ambitious growth of its use in construction,” he added. “3D printing can be used to make bespoke parts for buildings, ranging from doorknobs to custom structures that either look amazing or function better for some specific task.”
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Despite its relative youth, Dubai’s International Centre for 3D Printing has already produced the world’s first 3D-printed office. Layer by layer, a 3D printer was used to print the building in a special cement mixture. It took a total of 17 days to print the building, at a cost of about $140,000, after which the interior and exterior design details were added. “It’s a great example of how you can create a building that exactly fits your purpose,” said Al Aleeli.
Dubai is also incorporating 3D printing technology into its transportation sector, employing 3D-printed components across its buses, rail and civic infrastructure. Abdulredha Abu Hassan, director, building and facilities management at UAE rail authority RTA, said 3D-printed bus stations, street furniture, complex buildings and bridges would become the norm in the next few years. “3D printing allows ideas to develop faster and more cost-effectively than ever. We can also personalise and tweak parts to uniquely fit different needs.”
3D printing promises regional benefits
Raghu Mandagolathur, senior vice-president and head of research at Kuwait Financial Centre, believes the development of Dubai’s 3D printing knowledge could benefit the wider Middle East.
“3D printing could have the most impact on affordable real estate, healthcare, and the oil and gas industry. There are numerous applications in the fields of biotech and healthcare that may require specific tools based on the application,” said Mandagolathur.
“The regional adoption rate of 3D printing technology, especially in sectors such as manufacturing, is above average compared to the global adoption rate. Initiatives taken by the regional governments to set up 3D manufacturing labs, along with the growing awareness of cost savings, have led to a promising emergence of new 3D printing startups,” he said.
Raghu Mandagolathur, Kuwait Financial Centre
But perhaps the biggest hope for the region’s developing 3D printing industry lies in its ability to repair the damage of war-torn cities. Iraq, Sudan and Syria are already looking into 3D printing innovation to restore buildings and monuments. A delegation of Iraqi ministry officials recently travelled to the Suzhou, China, to visit the WinSun, a world leader in 3D printing construction, to look at home reconstruction technology.
Mandagolathur said 3D-printed housing using bioplastics and other recycled materials could soon transform disaster reconstruction and help the homeless as the technology becomes more affordable.
Sevag Papazian, principal with Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), agreed 3D printing technologies would be critical in helping to rebuild war-ravaged cities. “In addition to a faster construction process, original building designs could be redrawn using advanced imaging techniques and passed to 3D printers for implementation. There is an opportunity to keep the spirit of original designs, while using new types of material to ensure more robust and environmentally friendly structures.”
Preparing for 3D printing pitfalls
Despite the many clear advantages of 3D printing, the advancing technology could potentially lead to job losses for a large number of low-skilled workers. “At present, the size of objects created by 3D printers is limited. However, in the near future, larger items could potentially be created using 3D printing technology,” said Mandagolathur.
He also warned 3D printing could violate copyrights and encourage large-scale counterfeiting. “This could lead to loss of incentive to innovate and create products, as they could be copied easily.”
In the coming years, as Dubai chases its dream of becoming an international 3D printing pioneer, its government will be tasked with managing the loss of low-skilled jobs with the creation of more of them within the growing 3D printing sector, and implementing copyright laws to protect and incentivise innovation.