3D printing ready to revolutionize manufacturing

3D printing ready to revolutionize manufacturing
The Shanghai Free Trade Zone.

In October, the southern Chinese city of Changsha launched an industrial park. What sets it apart from other manufacturing centres is that it is poised to play a key role in the growth of Chinese technology.

The development is China's first hub for 3D printing technology, and was established with an immediate goal to produce 100 3D printers, and to triple the number of devices by 2016. Taking Changsha's lead, the cities of Wuhan and Zhuhai have announced plans to develop similar industry hubs.

Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are also focusing on this fast-growing technology.

Over the next five years, Singapore plans to invest $500 million (S$676 million) to boost skills in advanced manufacturing, focusing heavily on 3D printing.

Companies in Japan are already marketing inexpensive desktop 3D printers, while South Korean conglomerates are widely using the technology.

After decades of development, 3D printing has emerged as a viable and affordable technology, increasingly used by both the private and public sector. While problems remain, it could eventually revolutionize the manufacturing sector that many countries in Asia depend on for economic growth.

"3D printing has been around since the 1980s and has been expanding into mass production and specialised manufacturing since then," says Maria Smith, head of law firm Baker & McKenzie's trademarks practice in Hong Kong.

"The business is growing rapidly. In 2013, the (global) market size was estimated at $2.5 billion. It is projected to reach $16.2 billion by 2018."

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has already been used to produce cars, buildings, guns and even artificial body parts.

"In the medical field, Chinese scientists have gone a step further, using live tissue to create organs and print ears, livers and kidneys," adds Smith.

As it becomes increasingly accessible and affordable to consumers, the technology is making it possible for products to quickly reach the market with less labour-intensive production required.

But these benefits are also a cause for concern. As 3D printing allows for the quick and easy copying of products, it is, in turn, presenting fresh challenges for regulators that have yet to adapt to the technology and for companies seeking to protect their intellectual property rights.

Once prohibitively expensive, the technology that makes 3D printing possible has evolved substantially.

Hewlett-Packard in October introduced a 3D printing technology 10 times faster and 10 times more precise than existing technologies. The Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer is set to launch in 2016.

In November, General Electric announced its plans to invest $32 million in developing an additive manufacturing facility in the United States-a factory that operates using 3D printers.

In Asia, XYZprinting, a company backed by Taiwan's electronic manufacturing conglomerate Kinpo Group, launched the world's first allin-one 3D printer with built-in scanner.

The da Vinci 1.0 AiO, weighing around 20 kilograms and resembling a large microwave, is available to buy for $799 through e-commerce websites including Newegg.com and Amazon.

A 3D printer introduced in late 2014 and developed by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp is due to be mass-produced and available later this year.

Li & Fung, a Hong Kong-based consumer goods design, logistics and distribution company, has in recent years run a series of 3D printing initiatives. In 2013, it carried out Asia's first in-store 3D printing retail experience at a Toys R Us outlet in Hong Kong. Li& Fung has also explored the possibility of teaming up with other companies like Samsung Electronics Co to drive the technology further.

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