3D printing reaches tipping point; 3D printing was used in the Melbourne production of King Kong

3D printing reaches tipping point

August 1, 2013

Larissa Ham

Once cost-prohibitive, 3D printing is now affordable and becoming mainstream.


3D printing was used in the Melbourne production of King Kong. Photo: Photo by James Morgan/Global Creatures

He’s now a mammoth, six-metre-high gorilla pounding the boards at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre, but the latest version of King Kong had his features fine-tuned inside a small 3D printer. “There was a lot of debate about how he was going to look – not only his body but his face as well,” says Domenic Di Giorgio, head of digital design at The Creature Technology Company. “He had to convey so much emotion during the performance.” In the past, the West Melbourne business fashioned its maquettes – or small models – from clay, laboriously changing small details until it finally got the design right. However, thanks to the growing quality and affordability of 3D printers, designers are able to tinker with countless iterations of their creatures.While clay models used to cost the business up to $2000 per model, Di Giorgio’s digital team can now create something similar on their own 3D printer for as little as $10 – before giving the final small version to their fabricators to create the large-scale creatures audiences see.

“It’s a humungous saving for us,” says Di Giorgio.

It’s not only cutting-edge theatre companies embracing 3D printing.

Simon Marriott, the vice-president of Asia-Pacific for the world’s biggest 3D printing company, 3D Systems, says small firms are among the keenest buyers.

“Over the last seven years the trend has definitely swung to SMEs. For every large corporation we sell a machine to we probably sell four to SMEs,” says Marriott.

“The average one we probably sell for about $50,000 – that’s at the SME level. Then we move into what we call the ‘prosumer’ [a cross between a professional and consumer] level. They sell for $5000 down to $600.”

The technology is far from new – it’s been used in medical, military, aerospace, IT and other circles for decades – but Marriott says the “tipping point” came a couple of years ago when many patents expired, opening up the technology to smaller companies.

Now, as prices fall, everyone from architects, to artists, industrial designers, and packaging and toy industries is weighing in. They’re using the technology to create models or prototypes either to woo customers or prove to investors that there’s a market for their product.

“Anyone involved in being innovative about developing products is going to make use of this technology,” says Marriott.

He says it also has a real potential to bring manufacturing back into the hands of Australians, and cut the amount of stock tied up in slow supply chains.

“For many years we’ve talked about productivity improvements, becoming a lot leaner in the way we manufacture our goods. I suppose the challenge we have is a very small population, and the cost of developing products is so high,” says Marriott.

“Manufacturing out of China has really extended our supply chain and made it difficult to be lean.”

Christopher Sutton, director of Thinglab, says the Melbourne business has seen a considerable upturn in interest from SMEs – and consumers generally – recently.

“A few years back there weren’t many options in the lower-priced market. If you wanted to get into 3D printing you had to spend a lot of money,” he says.

“What we’re seeing very clearly is [printers are] becoming more affordable and capable.”

Among other markets, 3D printing is already proving a game changer for dental laboratories, which can create parts of one-off pieces, such as partial dentures, on their own printers.

David Schwab, managing director of NSW small business Dentacast, has wasted no time getting ahead of the curve. Among other things, he has used 3D printers to print out plastic frameworks for partial dentures that are then cast into metal.

“It really is a revolutionary piece of technology,” he says.

While 3D printing hasn’t necessarily saved him money – he spent about $300,000 on printers, software and the equipment needed to go with it – it has helped him win new business.

“If we didn’t do this we would be really struggling to find new customers. We have to have something that makes us different or better than our competitors,” says Schwab.

The new technology means he now needs fewer people to create each customised dental prosthetic, but Schwab vows to expand the business rather than shed staff.

However, he’s facing stiff competition from Chinese manufacturers, who can operate more cheaply and do not face the same Therapeutic Goods Administration regulations that anyone making dental prosthetics in Australia must abide by.

“It’s not a level playing field for manufacturers,” he says.

Many, including Domenic Di Giorgio and Simon Marriott, predict consumers will eventually expect the efficiency and customisation that 3D printers can offer.

Di Giorgio says that in the future, someone who needs a new dinner set – or just wants to replace a broken plate – may opt to buy a digital design online, which they can print out at home, eliminating shipping time and costs.

“Consumers are starting to adopt 3D printing as part of their lifestyle – albeit an affluent one,” says Marriott.

“In the next two or three years the price of these printers is going to drop. A lot more people will be able to afford them.”


•     3D printing is a process also known as additive manufacturing, whereby a solid object is created through successive layers of material.

•     Innovators have printed everything from guns to stiletto shoes, bikinis, a violin, a bionic ear and part of a human face.

•      Website Thingiverse hosts hundreds of thousands of free digital designs shared by users.

•     A Dutch firm is one of many racing to build the world’s first 3D-printed house.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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