3D printing: From dental braces to astronauts’ seats; The signs are that 3D printing is transforming manufacturing, but not in the ways you might expect

3D printing: From dental braces to astronauts’ seats; The signs are that 3D printing is transforming manufacturing, but not in the ways you might expect

Sep 7th 2013 |From the print edition

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EVER since 3D printing—the ability to construct solid objects by building them up, a layer at a time, in plastic or metal—hit public consciousness a couple of years ago, comment has veered towards two extremes. Fans, often in America, insist it will have a dramatic impact, undermining the economics of mass production and repatriating jobs to the West. According to the Harvard Business Review, “China will have to give up on being the mass-manufacturing powerhouse of the world.” Critics denounce it as overblown hype—“a gimmick” according to Terry Gou, the boss of Foxconn, a manufacturing giant in China: he says he will start spelling his name backwards if he is proved wrong. In fact 3D printing is evolving in a way that defies both these predictions (seeTechnology Quarterly). It is plainly a serious technology with a big economic impact. But it is not necessarily harming old-style factories or the Chinese.Big in America, bigger in China

The idea that it is a gimmick, suitable only for hobbyists, looks ever less likely. Cheap 3D printers for consumers are selling fast, but account for just 5% of the market. Many printers are still used for models and prototypes, but in 2012 more than 25% of the items emerging from 3D printers were finished parts, up from 4% in 2003, according to Wohlers Associates, a consultancy. It predicts that the industry, worth $2.2 billion last year, will grow by 28% this year. Align Technology, which makes transparent dental braces, printed 17m of them last year alone. And America’s space agency, NASA, recently tested a rocket engine with a 3D-printed fuel injector. Printing meant it could be made with just two parts instead of 115. A recent report on the technology by CM Research, another consultancy, concluded that manufacturers who do not adopt 3D printing “may find themselves at a cost disadvantage faster than they think”.

Far from spelling the end for traditional factories, it is being adopted by them and incorporated into existing processes to provide the best of both worlds. 3D-printed tools, jigs, moulds and dies allow production lines to be set up more quickly. Workers in BMW factories design and print custom tools to make it easier to hold and position parts. Printed parts are used to make specialist pharmaceutical and papermaking equipment. Cockpit and cooling-duct parts for aircraft, and panels and components for specialist cars, are 3D-printed and then combined with other parts. 3D printing is as much a complement as a competitor to mass production.

What of the idea that 3D printing is bad news for Chinese manufacturers? Some manufacturing is indeed being “reshored” to be closer to Western consumers. But when it comes to 3D printing, Chinese firms are as well-placed to embrace the new technology as anyone. Some of the world’s largest 3D printers can be found in China, including a 12-metre-long machine used to print titanium wing parts and fuselage frames for short-haul airliners. Chinese engineers have also pioneered the 3D printing of moulds in foundry sand, as a faster and more accurate way to cast metal. China’s astronauts sit in 3D-printed seats shaped to fit their bodies. Officials regard 3D printing as a way to upgrade China’s manufacturing base as rising labour costs erode its advantage.

The lesson for firms in all this? 3D printing can make all sorts of manufacturing even cheaper and more efficient. It will probably spread through Mr Uog’s factories sooner or later.

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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