Catalonia is using 3d printing to dramatically rethink traditional problem solving

October 2014.- From inoperable tumours to people-sourced production ideas, 3D printing is changing the way we face traditional problems. It gives people a far greater access to what could be called tools for invention, allowing them to not only conceive and design solutions, but to actually produce them quickly and locally. And Catalonia is taking part in ground-breaking work to push and expand the use of this new technology. 


The first example is a joint collaboration between the Fundació CIM - the advanced technology centre of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. BarcelonaTech (UPC) - and the Barcelona children’s hospital, the Hospital Sant Joan de Déu. When a five-year-old patient was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour caused by a neuroblastoma cancer, the medical team dealing with the problem were able to approach the problem from a new angle. Up to now, these kinds of tumours are virtually impossible to remove because far too many blood vessels and arteries surround them. In fact the team had performed two previous attempts to remove the tumour but were unsuccessful. 

Until they realised that if they could print a 3D model of the tumour they could then practice their operation beforehand and discover in the process the most effective and least damaging way to remove it. Creating a 3D model of the tumour itself and the blood vessels and other organs surrounding it, and another model of the area without the tumour, the doctors were able to see not only the best and fastest way to perform the surgery but also to study in advance the proposed results of the operation. The operation was a complete success and the hospital has meanwhile ordered two more 3D models to continue working with this technology. 


The second example is the revolution being posed by the international digital manufacturing event FAB10, held this year in Barcelona. In the words of its inventor, Neil Gershenfeld “You expect the city to provide electricity or clean water. This is a new notion of infrastructure, which is tools for invention. The idea is that anybody in Barcelona should be able to make anything. You can use it for education, for play, for business, for work, for all those purposes, but this new notion of invention as part of the infrastructure of the city, Barcelona is really the world leader. It's a new revolution that Barcelona is leading." 

FAB10, held in the Barcelona Design Hub, is a mix of conferences, workshops, a fair and a summer-camp all rolled up into one event. It has an ambitious approach to manufacturing; changing the model from local design and foreign production to worldwide, open source design and local production, preferably with recycled materials. FAB10 is also an offshoot of the original idea of its inventor, the FAB labs, or self-contained production centres where people can use 3D printers and laser cutters and other tools to produce virtually whatever they want. Attending the event was the Barcelona Mayor, Xavier Trias, who promised the event’s visitors that Barcelona would be the First Fab city in the world, given the undeniable value of the FAB Lab initiative in how it can act as a motor to bring back production to cities such as Barcelona, where it once was such an important part of its industrial tradition. 

So in this journey which started by going from atoms to bits, and which is now turning full circle, and going back to atoms, Barcelona and Catalonia are working hard to ensure that they will not only be part of the journey, but also help to write some of its most significant chapters.