Rotterdam is the hub of a rapidly-growing, innovative industry; thrilling novel applications for 3D printing are being put into practice at sites such as the RDM yard, Blue City and Erasmus MC. Launching these trail-blazing applications are start-ups and scale-ups who are pushing the envelope to explore the possibilities of this new technology. And all of these applications share another common factor: the ambition to operate sustainably as well as to innovate. These pioneers are adding an extra dimension to Rotterdam as a leading international sustainable city.
From marine propellers to artificial reefs for corals, the world of 3D printing is developing at pace, and looks like playing a major role in the global effort to make the planet more sustainable. As the home of innovative, internationally-operating printing businesses, Rotterdam plays a key role in this development. Rotterdam was already a test lab for sustainable businesses committed to the circular economy, but the port city has now also become a leading pioneer when it comes to the virtually boundless opportunities of 3D printing.
For Nadia Fani of Coastruction, it is the freedom of shape that is the greatest advantage of 3D printing: ‘You can print any shape, using any conceivable material. We have deployed this technology to make artificial reefs for corals from for example Dolomite sand, whereby we can produce natural replicas to fill and repair damaged areas of coral reef. 3D printing empowers us to restore the beauty of nature that we – human beings – have destroyed’. Marine ecologist Astrid Kramer is one of the co-founders of the business: ‘For some years now I have been working on the replication of coral reefs using 3D printing. Thanks to this technology, we can replicate any shape using any conceivable material. For example, we can scan broken pieces of reef and restore it. Reefs everywhere are suffering massive damage, but now we can do something to restore them’.
Liesbeth Ruijgrok, of the EMC pharmacy, has recently been involved in the 3D printing of medicines for the hospital’s youngest patients. A great invention, says the pharmacist: ‘Together with TNO, we are working on this thrilling new technology, which enables us to customise the doses of many children’s medicines. I can foresee that people will be able to print their own individualised medicines themselves ten or twenty years from now’.
The former subtropical swimming paradise Tropicana has now become a testing ground for sustainable businesses, including start-ups committed to 3D printing. Businesses like the Better Future Factory, managed by Casper van der Meer and his partners, which helps companies in their transition to sustainable plastics: ‘Discarded plastic is not necessarily waste; it can itself be the raw material for new plastics. That’s what we are trying to achieve’. The business grinds and melts waste plastic to form the plastic filament used in 3D printers. Says Casper: ‘We are the first business in the world to operate like this on a commercial basis, so we are making a difference at the end of the life cycle of a plastic product, and at its beginning as well. We feel that improved design could eventually ensure that there is no more plastic waste’.
Take RAMLAB, a company which can produce 3D printed objects on demand. Managing director Vincent Wegener explains: ‘3D printing is essentially the stacking of layers of material. This could be plastic, but metal can also be used. What we do is known as Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing. This is actually 3D metal welding, and it is a technique which enables us to manufacture large metal objects, such as an entire ship propeller’.
Metal parts can be produced to order using this technology. Vincent: ‘Overall, 90% of the spare parts manufactured are never used. This is a waste of production facilities and materials, not to mention the space wasted in storing all these parts. Another essential benefit of this type of 3D printing is that spare parts can be produced locally, which represents a tremendous saving on transport’.