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.
“With nearly 30 years of development, 3D printing technology is already quite mature,” says Luo Jun, secretary-general of the World 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance.
“It has been widely used for design in creative industries and printing teeth or bones in the biomedical field,” adds Luo, who is also executive-president of the China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance. “Manufacturing and the aerospace industry use it to print complex moldings and components, or customised buildings.”
Paul Shao, CEO of Trustworthy (Beijing) Technology, a 3D printer company that distributes systems developed by brands including 3Shape and Roland, says the region is quickly finding its way with 3D technology.
“In Asia, the markets in Japan, China and South Korea are more mature in terms of 3D printing, but we can see many regions like Southeast Asia and central Asia are joining the game in trading and applications,” Shao says.
A country’s 3D printing capacity is closely linked with its competitiveness in traditional manufacturing, he adds.
“Compared with the US, Europe and Japan, China is still at an infant stage in terms of innovative design, precision processing and economic power. We have much space to grow in many key technology areas such as laser and materials. But we are getting closer and closer,” says Shao.
The evolution of supply chains is also driving the development of 3D printing. More brands are using just-in-time supply chains that make good use of the technology, getting products manufactured more quickly and into the hands of consumers.
In other regional markets, many of which rely on labour-intensive manufacturing for economic growth, the technology is less mature. Examples are Thailand and Malaysia, two middle-income countries moving up the value chain.
Thailand imports all of its 3D printers from the US, Canada or Germany because it lacks the technology to make its own, despite being a prodigious supplier of microchips.
But as Luo points out, the use of 3D technology in the region is likely to gather more pace.
“3D printing technology has been growing fast in China with more than 100 companies involved in industry, biomedicine, creative (industries), architecture, materials and software. China’s 3D printing market has seen more than 40 per cent growth for two consecutive years,” says Luo.
China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has included 3D printing technology in the National High-Tech Research and Development Program, which sponsors research in key high-technology fields. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, or MIIT, is accelerating the process to launch support policies.
“The Ministry of Education is planning to bring 3D printers into schools,” Luo adds.
In September, MIIT announced it was working on a plan to promote the industry.
“We will see greater usage of 3D printing with increased affordability encouraged through government initiatives,” says Andy Leck, managing principal and head of the IP practice at Wong & Leow, a member firm of Baker & McKenzie in Singapore.
“Key examples of these initiatives include the Singapore government’s Productivity and Innovation Credit scheme and the investment of $500 million over five years as part of the government’s Future of Manufacturing programme,” he says.
All this attention, however, may be creating a bubble. After a boom in raising capital through 2013, many 3D printer manufacturers have performed badly, particularly in terms of their stock price.
The share prices of some major 3D printer producers have dropped significantly over the past year. US-based ExOne fell from $66 in January to $21 in November, Stratasys slid from $134 to $105 and 3D Systems plunged from $96 to $36. In the same period, Germany’s Voxeljet dropped from $47 to $12.
A number of linked companies listed in China’s A-share market, such as those involved in robotics, have not performed well, either.
One exception is Guangdong-based polymer materials company Silver Age, which saw its value grow from 6.16 billion yuan ($994 million) in January to 17.45 billion yuan in November.
And if IP issues and fears of a bubble are not enough of a concern, the industry in Asia still faces a couple of other challenges including the high cost of materials and a dependence on imports. Another hurdle is the lack of a mature business model for companies in the sector.