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Car parts, cartilage, and cocktail dresses – all at the click of a button

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What do stilettos, turbo-chargers and a human heart all have in common? No, they are not leftover props from a Stanley Kubrick film but things that can all potentially be created in a 3D printer.

Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, has been around since the 1980s. However, it is only in recent years that the technology has become more mainstream with the fashion, automobile, and medical industries all taking advantage of the latest 3D printing innovations.

Swedish firms were among the first to spot the potential of the technology. Supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg, based in Ängelholm in southern Sweden, 3D printed the turbocharger and titanium exhaust tip for its One:1 sportscar, which produces an astonishing 1360 horsepower.

A benefit of 3D printing is that it cuts down on costs and allows items to be made bespoke. For Koenigsegg, it was cheaper to 3D print the car parts (over three days) rather than make them in its factory. Despite saving money by going 3D, the sleek One:1 still costs around EUR 2 million.

And the prices of certain 3D printers are similarly eye-wateringly high, although costs have dropped significantly as more companies get in on the print revolution. Swedish startup Cellink knows that better than most as it has been making inroads in the market with 3D printers that cost as little as EUR 8,500.

But Cellink doesn’t just make any old 3D printer. No, the company is leading the way with 3D bioprinters – technology that can print human organs.

Cellink has been making global headlines with its bioprinters that use bioink, which is a mixture of liquid and human cells, to produce affordable bioprinters for a range of international research institutions such as Harvard University and University College London.

The company’s Swedish co-founder, Eric Gatenholm, has ambitious plans to shake up the world of medicine and the medical community is certainly paying attention to this Swedish startup, which has grown rapidly since its founding in 2015.

Hearing aids have long been created in 3D printers but bioink can be used to produce skin and cartilage. Longer-term, the goal is to create fully-functioning human organs with the holy grail being a 3D heart; something that is forecast to occur within the next decade.

International firms have been swift to notice Sweden’s ascendancy in the 3D printing market. Siemens is pumping in EUR 21.4 million to build a 3D printing workshop in the industrial Swedish town of Finspång. Slashing build times for projects and getting products on the market faster are just two of the key attributes that make 3D printing worthy of investing in for the German giant.

“Developing a prototype was a process that used to take 18 months from start to finish. With 3D printing we have reduced that time to four to five weeks and the cost has also fallen dramatically,” says Hans Holmström, CEO of Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery AB. “Today we encourage all our design engineers to test as many crazy ideas as possible, to explore dream concepts they previously knew were too risky for expensive prototyping”.

And 3D printing has also entered Sweden’s fashion world, with Stockholm luxury department store Nordiska Kompaniet recently organising an ‘Artificial Icon Exhibition’ featuring iconic cocktail dresses and stiletto heels recreated in a 3D environment.

Meanwhile, Nike and Adidas have already produced 3D trainers with others set to follow suit.

“In a way you can say that 3D printing is the most important invention for the fashion world since the sewing machine,” says Daniel Stipich, marketing manager of Nordiska Kompaniet.

The 3D printing industry is expected to grow to an estimated EUR 14 billion in 2018 and Swedish companies, like Cellink, Spotscale (3D environments created using drones) and Wematter (which rents out 3D printers) to name but a few, are setting the pace for others to follow. Watch this (3D) space.

Read more about manufacturing, life sciences and retail in Sweden