From medical splints to meat-free burgers, multimillion-dollar 3D tech hubs are spawning new verticals across Spain
Crafting a multifaceted network of designers and service providers in the rapidly evolving 3D tech industry, Spain is leading the revolution across diverse business sectors like retail, medical equipment, automotive and aerospace.
With sustainability and on-demand services becoming key economic drivers worldwide, 3D tech can disrupt businesses across verticals by optimizing time-to-market product development. Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, processes reduce wastage because exact amounts of composite materials are applied layer by layer to build the desired items. At present, additive manufacturing is deployed in a variety of applications especially bioprinting, packaging, nano-manufacturing, design and architecture.
In 2014, the European Union (EU) commissioned Spain's digital innovation management consultancy Carsa to launch FABulus, the European 3D printing acceleration program for SMEs. Public funding has also been invested in the European 3D tech and additive manufacturing sector, with the EU giving about €160 million to over 60 3D printing research projects between 2007 and 2013. Since then, the European Commission's innovation incentive program Horizon 2020 (2014–2020) has been backing such projects with grants of up to €1 million.
“We're without a doubt observing one of the biggest changes in our discipline since the industrial revolution,” said Manuel Jiménez García, a research architect and co-founder of Nagami, a Spanish design studio that specializes in robotic additive manufacturing.
Catalonian, Basque regions lead
In 2017, the Spanish government pledged to boost the use of 3D printing in healthcare. The Ministry of Industry also gave loans and grants worth €21.25 million to Hewlett-Packard Spain that has invested €50 million in its new global 3D printing center in Sant Cugat, near Barcelona.
In Catalonia, one of the most advanced Spanish 3D tech economies, local businesses in the sector generated a turnover of about €239 million in 2018. The number of 3D tech companies totaled 90, with over a quarter churning out revenues of over €1 million annually. Aiming to become a European 3D tech referential hub, the region has the highest concentration of R&D centers in Spain.
For example, the material engineering sector's Thermal Spray Center creates new products and processes through additive manufacturing. The CIM Foundation, part of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), provides startups with all the resources needed to develop their own 3D printers. The region is also home to the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) that specializes in bioprinting technologies for tissue and organ regeneration.
In Barcelona, UPC's Campus Diagonal Besòs hosts a public laboratory of 10,000 sqm with 3D printing areas where the technology can be tested to accelerate digital transformation and strengthen market competitiveness. The International Advanced Manufacturing 3D HUB center IAM 3D HUB was also launched in May 2018. Founded by Leitat Technological Center, HP and Fira Barcelona, the hub will be used to accelerate the adoption and development of additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies in the EU.
Meanwhile, another rising star is BCN3D Technologies that invented the Independent Dual EXtruder (IDEX). The new 3D technology doubles productivity compared to conventional 3D printers and its clients already include BMW, Samsung, Louis Vuitton and NASA. Developed in Barcelona by CIM Foundation and UPC, BCN3D clinched seed funding of €2.7 million in March 2019 to spin off its operations as an independent entity.
The northern Basque region of Spain is also at the forefront of 3D tech development. Through ADDIMAT, the region aims to connect players in the industry and provide them with training, opportunities for testing, subsidies and grants. ADDIMAT is the Spanish Association of Additive Manufacturing Technologies and 3D based in the Technological and Scientific Park of Guipuzcoa in San Sebastian.
Design and architecture
Applications of 3D printing to design and architecture have made impressive progress since the first construction of a 3D printed wall over 15 years ago by Behrokh Khoshnevisa, a professor from the University of South Carolina. Since then, additive manufacturing has attained faster construction times and optimized usage of materials to lower operational costs by about 30%. Today, it's even possible to 3D print houses in just 24 hours.
“Technology transfer, along with research and training, is our greatest commitment related to the challenges of Industry 4.0 and additive manufacturing,” said UPC Rector Francesc Torres. Additive manufacturing optimizes conventional production but still lacks competitiveness at an industrial level, especially for large-scale production. Companies are reluctant to switch fully into 3D technology because printers have not yet attained the speed required to produce entire product lines, he added.
But the unlimited commercial potential of 3D tech could be the incentive needed to spur businesses to make the quantum leap into the 3D tech world. With on-demand consumer behavior rapidly becoming a lifestyle trend, 3D printing monetization lies in the creation of design prototypes, interior decor, accessories and other consumer products.
Based in Ávila, northwest of Madrid, Nagami focuses on 3D printing that uses plastic pellets to minimize production costs. Traditional 3D printing uses filaments that cost 10 times more than plastic pellets. Nagami’s more advanced 3D printing techniques can produce a variety of color gradation and thickness for the 3D printed layers. Founded in 2016 to develop a prototype for robotic 3D printing, the design studio's Voxel Chair v1.0 gained international recognition at the Georges Pompidou Museum in Paris. Nagami now plans to work on different sized objects to expand its product range, from interior decorations to larger architectural components.
Founded in 2011, Cunicode experiments with additive manufacturing in product design. Founder Bernat Cuni specializes in digital fabrication, eco-design and design R&D. Cunicode has developed joint projects with the CIM Foundation to create new aesthetics in 3D printing. Cunicode products range from lighting, jewelry and decorative items. Cuni believes that 3D printing disrupts the design industry by enabling mass-customization: each piece being different based on a series of parameters that allow open-design and full personalization. Demand for such large-scale customization services is expected to rise phenomenally, as costs go down due to economies-of-scale.
Existing medical 3D printing applications mainly involve research projects on bioprinting to generate tissue and organs, implants, surgical simulations and the design of prostheses. Madrid's Gregorio Marañón Hospital has also recently established the Hospital Commission for 3D Printing, the country's first public health body to champion the use of 3D tech in medicine.
However, the commercial potential of additive manufacturing is already evident in the private sector. The ability to customize devices for individual patients will help healthcare providers to quickly tap into the medical 3D printing global market that is forecast to reach US$1.2 billion by 2024. Pioneering the development of this sector in Spain, Zaragoza-based Exovite can produce a personalized 3D splint in less than five minutes. Backed by Microsoft Scaleup Tel Aviv, US-based fund Healthbox and Madrid's Pinama Investments, the company has a team of over 15 professionals experienced in medicine, electronics, computer science and 3D printing. The revolutionary Exovite treatment can reduce recovery time for broken bones to just seven weeks instead of 10.
Foodtech and sustainable packaging
The global market value of 3D printed food is projected to reach US$525.6 million by 2023. Facing enormous pressure to feed growing populations worldwide, food producers are trialing 3D printing to manufacture highly nutritious food in lab-factories and even tailor-make meals for individual customers.
Excessive packaging used in supermarkets, on-demand food deliveries and online shopping have also attracted criticism from environmentalists and authorities worldwide. Innovative companies like 3D Click has launched a wide range of SaaS packaging tools to help businesses to comply with the EU regulation to adopt 100% sustainable processes and packaging by 2030. Packaging accounts for a large portion of food costs that are passed on to consumers and local authorities for recycling. Therefore, 3D food printing and 3D eco-packaging may just be the answer to minimize the carbon footprints along the food supply chains.
Until now, food suppliers and hospitals have been the main customers for 3D printed foods in Spain. Any mass-market among consumers for 3D printed food products is still in its infancy. Though 3D printers are becoming more affordable, end-customers don’t have access to ready-to-print food materials. But this should change soon as foodtech pioneers like Novameat and Natural Machine develop 3D food printing solutions to promote mass-market adoption amongst key industry players.
Based in Barcelona, Natural Machine brings 3D printing into the next generation of IoT home appliances. The company has recently launched Foodini, a 3D printer that can produce 100% personalized food items. The 3D printer capsules are filled with the customer's choice of fresh ingredients to prepare a wide array of dishes like pizza and dumplings. “Mixing printing with food normally creates barriers,” said co-founder Emilio Sepulveda who noticed that people are reluctant to try 3D printed food because they think that artificial components are part and parcel of it.
But Foodini attempts to change this perception by giving customers full control over the choice of ingredients and nutritional values of their 3D printing food orders. The customized food options will also cater to personal dietary and medical needs. Foodini will offer healthier alternatives to processed food and also significantly reduce packaging waste in households. It's currently working with hospitals, schools, food brands, chefs and restaurants to become part of the IoT's new generation of kitchen appliances. Foodini is sold and distributed worldwide at about US$4,000 per appliance.
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