In what some have dubbed the Third Industrial Revolution, 3D printing is now allowing consumers to be masters of their own manufactured durable goods. But Asian countries will need to work a lot harder to avoid becoming laggards in this transformative new field.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing refers to the process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model using powder, molten plastic or metals.
It first slices a 3D computer model into layers, then builds the object one layer at a time using the 3D printer. The quality of the end-product is dependent on various factors, such as the base material, thinness of the layers, mechanics of the printer as well as the amount of preparation taken into consideration for the 3D computer model.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing seeks to distinguish itself from “subtractive manufacturing”. The latter involves the cutting down and pairing-off materials to attach them together in the end.
With a projected growth of 25 per cent to the year 2020, there has been a significant shift in 3-D printing from rapid prototyping to rapid manufacturing as the advantages outweigh traditional methods. The 3D printing market is expected to be valued at USD 8.41 billion by 2020.
What does 3D printing offer?
This technology only gained popularity in the 1990s when it was mainly used to create 3D models and prototypes in sectors such as engineering, architecture, and manufacturing. But 3D printing is now going mainstream as 3D printers are available for sale as a consumer product. Many schools are now buying 3D printers to make science classes more interesting.
Some other benefits only possible with 3D printing include:
Improved structures and shapes
Traditional manufacturing can only produce limited structures and shapes due to the conventional cutting and molding of materials. Moreover, if the molds are complicated and hollow, it would take more assembly time, as the structured pieces cannot be produced at one go like additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing, on the contrary, has completely broken through this technology limitation as it simply builds the object layer by layer. The consumers’ imagination is the only restriction to creating new structures and shapes.
New combinations of materials
Combining different raw materials is always regarded as costly and difficult for mass production using traditional manufacturing methods, due to their varying chemical and physical properties. However, with the constant innovation made by enthusiasts and experts, various diverse materials can be combined for 3D printing production. In other words, many solutions have emerged to use different materials with unique finishes in 3D printing; mimicking the look and feel of glass, ceramics or even metal.
Since additive manufacturing is about adding materials layer by layer to form the final product instead of carving the end-product out of larger parts, waste is minimized during the production process.
Lowered manufacturing cost
Manufacturing costs can be reduced by up to 70 per cent due to less wastage, assembly and labor input during 3D printing production.
Also, since final-tier channels or consumers are now capable of producing end-products on their own, more goods would be produced at or closer to their point of purchase or consumption. Thus, many intermediate processes can be eliminated.
Reduced production lead-time
Traditional manufacturing methods usually require at least two days – from creating prototypes to assembling the finished products. However, industrial 3D printing technology is able to create an object within a few hours. This is also known as on-demand manufacturing; the most efficient method for small quantity manufacturing.
Implications for the real world
As one of the most impactful technological breakthroughs in recent years, 3D printing is expected to change the manufacturing landscape as profoundly as how the MP3 player transformed the music landscape. 3D printing technology will profoundly impact the following industries:
3D printing has paved the way for local production of products, which was previously deemed only possible in large centralized plants. A wide range of consumer products from electronic accessories like iPhone 5 covers to household items such as kids’ toys and shower heads can now be easily printed in the comfort of one’s home.
Now, people can design a prototype themselves using 3D modeling software, and have the item printed out in a few hours at a place like 3DPhacktory in Toronto. This typically costs tens of thousands of dollars and take months using traditional prototyping methods.
Food & Beverage
Although in a nascent stage, there are many changes taking place in this sector. For instance, Spanish 3D printer, Natural Machines’ Foodini managed to print ravioli and gnocchi using a single ingredient. Printable food products are also available through a UK chocolate company known as Rococo’s Mini-You chocolate.
3D printing technology is well-established in dentistry, where it is used to fabricate customized dental implants on the spot. It is now revolutionizing the healthcare industry more widely, providing customized solutions for patients with various medical conditions. Recently, a 3D printed and embeddable heart device was created by the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, USA. The device contains tiny sensors which help monitor a patient’s heart; possibly transforming how heart disorders will be treated in the future.
According to one estimate, the global market for 3D printing in medical applications reached USD354.5 million in 2012. Experts are predicting an annual average growth of 15.4% in the next five years, with the market to hit USD965.5 million by 2019.
Even automotive vehicles can now be created through 3D printing. Italian company CRP Group has developed the Energica range of motorcycles. Planned to be released in 2015, this electric series of superbikes – entirely prototyped using 3D printing – is able to clock a speed of up to 240 kilometers per hour.
Are Asian countries leaders or laggards?
The Asia-Pacific region should be a key region ripe for 3D printing adoption, due to its extensive industrial base, supportive policies and government funding in research & development (R&D). Both Japan and China are noteworthy in terms of government initiatives and rapid growth in this field.
Compared to the US and European markets, 3D printing in Japan is still in its nascent stage despite Japan being a global technology leader. To fuel industry growth, the Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry (METI) has allocated USD44 million in the 2014 budget to support R&D initiatives in the manufacturing of metal products through 3D printing.
Excited investors are also eyeing this burgeoning sector for end-product sales. US-based 3D Systems has expanded its partnership with Canon Marketing in 2013 to distribute 3D printers in Japan. Another US company, Stratasys, recently acquired the remaining shareholdings of Fasotec – a Japanese 3D scanning and printing company that rose to fame for printing models of unborn babies – in Stratasys Japan. This has enabled Stratasys Japan to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Stratasys Ltd.
China’s 3D printing market is estimated to be worth USD1.65 billion by 2016. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has funded USD32 million to 10 research centers for 3D printing in 2012. Moreover, the China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance was formalized in December 2013 to unleash the full potential of 3D printing in the country.
Players in China’s 3D printing industry are keen to co-operate with industrial pioneers from the Western countries; in a bid to combine China’s cheap manufacturing capacities with American support. An example of such a partnership would be the one forged between Tiertime, China’s largest manufacturer of 3D printers, and Minnesota-based Microboard Technology.
3D printing – Not yet a walk in the park
While 3D printing is an inspiring technology, early adopters have experienced several disadvantages that will take time to be overcome.
It is still unclear to what extent the current copyright laws would be applicable to 3D designs and software, as designs of different objects can be easily duplicated and counterfeited. Hence, it is crucial to update policies and laws to protect brands from counterfeits.
For example, the American satellite television network, Home Box Office (HBO) sent a cease and desist letter to 3D printing service provider, nuPROTO, to halt the printing of Iron Throne iPhone docks inspired from the Game of Thrones series.
Manufacture of dangerous weapons
Should the design of dangerous weapons end up in the wrong hands, the result could be increased transactions of unregistered weapons and possibly a rise in crime. For example, blueprints of gun designs were downloaded over 100,000 times across more than 40 countries in just two days in 2013 via the website of US group, Defence Distributed. Although only eight personal computers in Japan downloaded the blueprints directly from the website, they were already available widely across the country. Besides, 3D printed guns made of plastic can easily bypass metal detection at airports and commercial buildings, posing a big security challenge.
Though 3D printing could help manufacturing companies save cost in the long run, it may cause job losses in many industries, particularly in the prototyping industry. Should these employees fail to acquire new skills and be laid off thereafter, it may create social problems . However, this would seem to be a challenge for governments and societies to provide adequate retraining and social safety nets rather than an argument against adopting 3D printing, as the same argument could be used against any technological breakthrough.
What lies ahead?
Undoubtedly, 3D printing holds vast untapped potential in our fast-paced world where time is money. It enables the production of new structures and shapes, allows new combination of materials with far less wastage and, best of all, allows production to take place close to the point of consumption, potentially eliminating vast supply chain costs.
As with every new technology, there is a dark side and the dangers will need to be controlled. But this should not be a show-stopper. When DVDs were first introduced, many speculated that cinemas would become obsolete. This has not happened.
As the technology and the economics behind 3D printing matures, we can look forward to a future when completely customized products are made-to-order instantly at the corner retail shop – or even in the consumer’s own home.
As the technology and the economics behind 3D printing matures, we can look forward to a future when completely customized products are made-to-order instantly at the corner retail shop – or even in the consumer’s own home. Every apartment block and neighbourhood convenience store could be equipped with a heavy-duty 3D printer. Manufacturers would then focus on IP and designs rather than physical production and distribution.
The range of consumer choice would also be massively widened. In theory, every individual consumer could order a unit of a product with a globally unique permutation of characteristics.
However, it is clear that Asian countries are laggards rather than leaders in 3D printing at this point in time. Even in Japan and China, two countries which are leading the pack in Asia, the extent of investment and industry penetration is small compared to the West. A great deal needs to be done to play catch-up.
The economic competitiveness stakes are high for Asia but so are the potential benefits. For example, with government support, 3D printing could be positioned as a way to get more products into small towns and villages across Asia’s emerging market countries without incurring expensive logistics costs.
Asia will need to work a lot harder to ensure that 3D printing does not become a missed opportunity.
presented by SpireResearch.