How is 3D printing changing the UAE’s manufacturing landscape?
We are beginning to see some interest in additive manufacturing (also known as AM or 3D printing) from manufacturing sector players across the UAE. It is still in the very early stages and we lag behind other regions such as Europe, the US and Asia in the adoption of AM in mainstream production and manufacturing. However, there are key indicators that the market is ready and slowly opening up.
Which sectors will this technology most benefit?
We know that the technology will have a significant impact on the local economy.
Globally, AM is being applied across a large number of industries, from manufacturing and medical to oil and gas, and that is to name just a few. The benefits of AM vary based on sector requirements. For example, in aerospace the benefit of AM is redesigning parts to be lighter by adopting designs that are more geometrically complex. In oil and gas, the advantage of AM is the turnaround speed for manufacturing spare parts, and in medical, providing customised medical devices is a game changer.
When looking at the local economy, there are at least three industries that will be disrupted by AM in the very near future: oil and gas, manufacturing and logistics. In oil and gas, regional companies are currently developing new parts and components using advanced materials to replace the traditional metals and composites, which provide better performance, more efficient usage, and a customised fit. In manufacturing, we work with a number of companies that are exploring how to capitalise on AM technology to make their operations more efficient and enhance their processes, either by integrating AM directly into their operations or by using the AM services to produce certain parts and components.
Finally, the sector that we believe will feel the most disruption is the logistics and warehousing industry. It is expected that within the next two years, AM will allow companies to convert over 5% of their parts and components inventories into a digital format, and to be produced on a per-need basis.
There are a growing number of organisations exploring AM, especially in the three sectors mentioned above, and as we see the rate of adoption increase we estimate that AM will contribute between $3bn and $4bn to the UAE economy over the next 2 to 3 years.
Setting up a 3D printing factory and an institute is an ambitious step towards supporting the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy. What are your expectations from both facilities in the short-term and the long-term?
The 3D printing micro factory was the first step of our three-year plan. Its purpose was to start strengthening the local AM knowledge base, and to build a solid development and engineering team with the right technical resources to enable companies interested in using AM to have a locally based 3D printing production centre on par with global best practices. This will enable them to explore, design, develop and produce parts right here in the UAE. Based on what we were able to achieve in our first year of operation, and the technical expertise we have developed, we expect to double our capabilities in 2018 and expand the scope of services we provide.
The institute was more the product of a need that had to be filled rather than a predetermined plan. We realised early on that the market does not understand AM technology, and that although there is a lot of awareness and coverage on 3D printing, the capabilities and limitations of the seven different AM technologies are not portrayed correctly. There is a massive gap in the understanding of the technology and its capabilities.
We continuously receive requests from the companies we work with to provide AM training sessions for their teams, and offer education and information on how best to capitalise on the technology. Accordingly, we identified a major need in the local and regional market to offer a structured source of information and education on AM, and to provide some standards on how this information is passed onto potential end users. The institute that is being set-up takes a holistic approach about how to develop the sector and build local capabilities. We do not necessarily see it as profit but more as a platform that can add value to AM companies in the region. It will be an open platform institute whereby any qualified organisation can provide courses related to AM.
Has there been much demand for specialised construction materials from the Immensa 3D printing factory?
Over the past year, we have been approached by many construction companies seeking 3D printing solutions for building materials. Our scope as Immensa is to bridge the gap between AM technology and its commercial use by organisations, and in line with this we have worked with some international construction companies to research methods on how best to utilise the technology in a commercially viable way within their businesses. We do not provide direct printing using concrete but have developed a few methods and processes that leverage various 3D printing technologies and can be applied in a commercially viable way.
We also work with some interior fit-out companies to develop and manufacture fittings, fixtures and decorative elements that were previously too costly to produce using transitional methods, or were imported from abroad.
Another application that companies have used Immensa services for is to produce prototypes and samples of sections to be tested on site for size and shape before actual production of final parts.
How can the construction industry leverage the benefits of this technology?
3D printing is still in the early stages of development when it comes to its application and use in the construction sector, and that is true globally, not just in the UAE. The construction sector has always been slow to embrace new technologies and AM is no different.
However, the push that Dubai is making with the 3D Printing Strategy launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the announcement by DFF that 2% of all new building must have 3D printed components by 2019, is pushing local and international companies to invest heavily in construction related 3D Printing R&D. There are already a few identifiable and tangible benefits that are being realised by some of our construction clients who are using 3D printing to complement their traditional way of working.
What is the ROI on 3D printing employed in a construction project?
I do not think anyone is at a stage today to identify the ROI. Integrating AM into the construction business is still in its nascent stages. However, eventually I think that with adequate material development and proper usage of the technology, companies should achieve a double digit return on their investment.
What are the challenges of 3D printing – in particular to this region?
As mentioned earlier, it’s the lack of proper education on the capabilities of the technology. Traditionally, the region has been an importer of goods and production know-how, but with AM there has to be a seismic shift in thinking. It has to start with thinking outside the box and beyond traditional manufacturing methods. We have to start with what is not possible with traditional manufacturing, and then build capabilities of how to design for digital manufacturing (which is 3D printing).
With 3D printing, you are changing how objects are designed and function, which opens up unlimited potential for development and improvement. If we are to apply AM to objects designed for traditional manufacturing then we lose out on a large part of the advantages of AM. That, in my opinion, is the largest obstacle and challenge in the adoption of 3D printing in the region. 3D printing democratises manufacturing, changes the definition of industrialisation of economies, and enables any country to build a manufacturing base and become ‘industrialised’. That will require another shift in our regional thinking; we need to start thinking as creators and producers as opposed to just users of products.
What is your outlook for 2018 for Immensa Technology Labs?
We are looking forward to 2018, when we will be continuing our plans for expansion and venturing into new domains within AM. This year was about understanding the market and developing our in-house know-how and capabilities, including our own propriety processes. This year, we have limited the number of clients we work with to ensure that we provide the right value-add.
Over the coming months, we can probably expand our client base, accommodate a few more companies and explore new sectors. We are excited with the developments we are achieving with our inventory digitisation project, and we believe we will be in a position to take on a handful of new clients and roll-out their own inventory digitisation programmes, which have been shown to bring significant financial benefits to companies.