3-D printing revolution? Copy that

3D printing's role in Dubai's predicted 'fourth industrial revolution' is as much about mass production and joined up thinking as it is about building offices, experts say.

Entrepreneurs in the country are using some old-fashioned handiwork to help create products for mass production at a fraction of the today's costs. Whether this will be a manufacturing revolution or evolution, 3D printing is here to stay.

For a man working at the frontier of a technological revolution, there is a surprising amount of handicraft to Ahmad Mackieh’s approach to 3-D printing that shows in the assortment of tools that the entrepreneur uses in his chosen trade.

Alongside banks of computers, industrial scanners and various state-of-the-art printers dedicated to realising the visions of his clients in resin, plastic and wax, Mr Mackieh’s cramped office in Abu Dhabi also contains a vacuum cleaner, rolls of kitchen towel, a thermometer-controlled hotplate stirrer and a saucepan.

These are used during the post-printing, curing process for the very small 3-D printed models his company, 3DCreations, comes up with, which sit alongside the bottles of chemicals, industrial alcohol and cartridges full of powdered resin that Mr Mackieh transmutes into prototypes, models and the one-off creations he describes as masterpieces.

“I compare my printers to cars because they need servicing, pre-processing and post-processing — that’s a mechanical process that has to happen on a daily basis,” the 32-year-old says.

“You have to clean these machines and prepare them to print and clean them properly. Even though 3-D printing has been around for more than 20 years, this is not a clean technology — not yet.”

An architect by training, Mr Mackieh dreamt up the idea of his company in 2014 when he saw an opportunity for an operation in Abu Dhabi that could service the burgeoning demand for an industry that management consultants McKinsey estimate will generate US$550 billion (Dh2.02 trillion) in the coming decade.

At the time, the capital was yet to acquire TechShop Abu Dhabi, where hobbyists now go to realise their visions, and it wasn’t possible to have sweets 3-D printed while you wait at Candylicious in Dubai Mall. But just five months after 3DCreations was established, Dubai began to declare its ambition to become a global 3-D printing hub with a series of announcements that captured the headlines.

In December 2015, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announced on Twitter that 25 per cent of construction in his emirate would be 3-D printed by 2030 as part of the Dubai Future Agenda. Last May, the Dubai Holding conglomerate launched the International Centre for 3-D Printing at Dubai Industrial City.

Later that month, Sheikh Mohammed opened the Office of the Future in Dubai, the first 3-D printed office building in the world, and when Mohammed Al Gergawi, the Minister of Cabinet Affairs and the Future, spoke at the World Economic Forum in November, he identified 3-D printing as one of the technologies that would help the country become a global laboratory for what he described as the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Despite the scale of these ambitions, Mr Mackieh’s commercial reality remains resolutely small-scale, as can be seen in the products that inhabit every available space in his office.

Alongside architectural models, prototype ironmongery, anatomically exact human skulls and superhero statuettes, the items that really capture the eye are a series of impossibly intricate prototypes for the kind of rings and brooches beloved by traditional South Asian jewellers.

Working to basic paper designs provided by bespoke workshops, these prototypes are produced using digital light processing and have become 3DCreations’ unexpected stock-in-trade.

A form of 3-D printing that employs a laser to transform light-sensitive liquid polymer into physical models, the designs achieve a degree of complexity and accuracy that would confound even the most experienced craftsman.

“This technique is fast. Within 48 hours, from a paper sketch, we can make a design that we print from and we can then supply the workshop with a masterpiece that they can cast from and secondly, it is cheap.If you need 100 pieces, we will only 3-D model the piece once, so the design cost for 100 pieces is nothing,” he says.

“But if a lady wears one of these rings it will look big. It gives you the impression that it is a bulky piece, but it is actually very light and doesn’t take much material. Without 3-D printing we couldn’t achieve that speed or that cost.”

If Mr Mackieh’s creations appear distant from Dubai’s claims about sparking a new industrial revolution, Terry Wohlers believes they address manufacturing challenges that are more suited to the kind of disruption, change and growth that has become associated with 3-D printing technology.

“It’s almost unbelievable the amount of attention and respect that 3-D printing is getting now that it did not get before,” the president of the US manufacturing consultancy, Wohlers Associates, says from his company headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“The UAE has become visible recently thanks to the 3-D printing of buildings, but we don’t feel that this makes any economic sense today. A lot has to happen before this becomes anything more than a story that people read about.”

Mr Wohlers has been publishing an annual report on the progress of 3-D printing worldwide for the last 21 years, and he says that although the extent of its growth may be global, its real impact is currently focused in areas other than construction, particularly mass production.

“We’ve seen very, very strong growth for the past three years, overall growth has been 31.5 per cent compound annual growth for 2013, 2014 and 2015,” he says, identifying aerospace, medical and dental sectors as some of the strongest drivers of investment in 3-D printing technology as well as manufacturers of consumer products such as footwear, eyewear and lighting design.

The focus of Dr Rashid Abu Al Rub’s research at the Masdar Institute may be on materials, but the engineer believes that the fruits of his research will have implications that extend across a variety of sectors including aerospace, automotive, construction and desalination.

“In many industries people want materials that are lighter, but that do not sacrifice their ability to perform, and so my focus is to come up with materials that are lightweight but that are ultra-strong at the same time,” says the Jordanian engineer identifying a goal — achieving more with less — that is remarkably similar to that of Ahmad Mackieh.

As the head of Masdar Institute’s department of mechanical and materials engineering, Dr Al Rub leads a research team of PhD and postgraduate students who collaborate with academics at New York University Abu Dhabi to investigate the use of 3-D printing to devise a new generation of “architected materials”.

“We are applying the same concepts that structural engineers apply to the design of dams, high-rise buildings and structural systems to the making of materials,” he says.

“If we play with what we call the microstructure, the internal geometry of a material, then we can architect it in such a way that it will deliver a specific property or function.”

To achieve this Dr Al Rub’s team works in sizes that range from a few millimetres to 100 microns — /10 of a millimetre — operating at scales that challenge the capabilities of current 3-D printing technology.

“What we are thinking about is replacing solid materials with ones that are full of air, like foam, but which have an internal distribution of voids that does not sacrifice so much strength. This allows me to reduce the weight of an object by almost 95 per cent while only sacrificing 20 per cent of its functionality.”

Composed of geometries that are still awaiting patents, most of the improbable sample structures that Dr Al Rub keeps in his office are commercially sensitive.

Printed in plastic, steel, aluminium and titanium on industrial metallic 3-D printing machines at NYUAD, some of the samples are made of mathematically generated, optimised geometries that do not occur in nature, while another has an architecture inspired by the internal structure of a diamond.

“Some of these shapes are very smooth surfaces, they are interconnected and occupy a minimum surface area. They have a resistance like the surface of a soap bubble or a balloon, which means that they could be used for desalination membranes, membrane separators or as heat exchangers,” Dr Al Rub says.

“Another could be used for catalytic converters on cars. We have proved that they can satisfy the requirements of environmental agencies and we could be able to replace commercially available catalytic converters with something similar to this that is almost half the size but with equal efficiency.”

For Callan Carpenter, vice president of global named accounts with Autodesk, the kind of multidisciplinary research that is being conducted by Dr Al Rub, which combines experimental 3-D printing and materials science with potential innovations in manufacturing, represents the joined-up thinking that is required if the UAE’s ambitions for a fourth industrial revolution are to become a reality.

“It’s not possible any more to say you are going to be great at just one thing, because if you are going to be great then there’s probably a whole ecosystem of other things that you also have to be good at in order to be great at that one thing,” Mr Carpenter said, speaking at the inaugural Autodesk University Middle East, which was held in Dubai in December.

“It’s easy to get caught up and think that everything is about to be 3-D printed and some giant inkjet printer will print off the next square block of Dubai, but the world is becoming an increasingly hybrid place.”

In October, Autodesk, the company behind design industry software staples such as Autocad, Revit, Inventor and Maya, signed an agreement with Dubai Future Foundation to finance 3-D printing entrepreneurs across the region from Autodesk’s $100m Spark investment fund.

“Dubai is in this very interesting place where it has set itself up to be a world leader in 3-D printing. But at the moment we don’t think of Dubai as a centre of manufacturing, so I think there’s a learning curve to overcome and some credibility to be gained in that space,” Mr Carpenter said.

“There’s an evolution there that may be important if Dubai is to become a true leader in 3-D printing, and no one is really sure where it will all settle out.”