New York (AFP)

Protective masks and visors for caregivers made in an emergency: the health crisis has given a boost to 3D printing. But the cost and the still uneven quality of this technology do not pose an imminent threat to industrial jobs.

The pandemic, which is disrupting corporate supply chains, has accomplished in a few weeks what the supporters and prowess of the fourth industrial revolution have struggled to do for 40 years: provoking a runaway likely to accelerate the adoption of the 3D printing far beyond the restricted circle of universities and start-ups.

In Italy, the first European country affected by the new coronavirus, the young shoot Isinnova, specialist in 3D printing, was thus called for help to modify a Decathlon diving mask in order to respond to the lack of breathing apparatus.

The movement has splashed: in France, Volumic has obtained validation from 260 laboratories (Cerballiance) for the printing of test specimens used for Covid-19 screening tests.

"3D printing is suitable for emergency situations", summarizes AFP Arthur Wheaton, professor specializing in social and manufacturing issues at Cornell University in New York.

- "Flexible" -

"Unlike traditional industrial production, which requires specific machines, manufactured in specific factories, 3D printing is very flexible," added Greg Mark, founder and CEO of Markforged, an American start-up manufacturing 3D machines.

"You just need a different computer file. If you want the printer to switch from printing masks to cotton swabs, you put another file. It is not possible in a traditional factory, where you will have to refurbish it and install suitable equipment, "he said.

Mark explains that his company is drowning in orders, a sign of the current success of 3D printing, which he observed at recent trade shows.

Four years ago, curiosity and skepticism still animated visitors to its stand, but last year marked a break.

"The vast majority of visitors had heard of 3D printing. They knew how they could use it and we were able to have more in-depth discussions," he said.

This is the case of the industrial group Würth Industry North America (WINA), which now brings together 3D printers and workers on its sites.

"We can now get products out there faster and lower inventory costs. We can also eliminate supply and transportation costs," said boss Dan Hill.

- Mass production -

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that appeared in the 1980s. The idea is to convert a digital model into a solid object in three dimensions.

If the techniques used are different, the principle is identical: superimpose layers of materials, the difference being the way in which these layers are deposited and treated and the type of material used.

The user needs a 3D printer, a consumable (filament, powder ...), a file, software to model the object and a computer.

In addition to medicine, aeronautics, jewelry, design and even the food industry. The Chinese-English company Choc Edge manufactures 3D printers for chocolate makers.

If companies optimize manufacturing time and become less dependent on their supply chain, the quality of finish of the objects is still lacking and, in the current state of technology, it is difficult to envisage mass production or the manufacture of complex and durable goods.

Therefore, "3D printing is not a big threat to conventional industrial production because the quality and costs are not as good as traditional manufacturing processes," said Art Wheaton.

The cost of 3D printers is, according to him, still prohibitive, which is likely to discourage more than one company and also temporarily removes the specter of replacement workers in factories.

"3D printers are not an immediate threat to employees, but improvements in technology and their cost could become a long-term threat," he warns.

Especially since new composite filaments based on metal (copper, bronze), carbon fibers and even wood allow the development of more resistant objects.

© 2020 AFP