Impact on traditional manufacturing
Because of material, cost and other developmental issues, some industry experts consider 3D printing a startup even as others maintain it could alter China’s volume manufacturing landscape. In contrast to traditional production where materials are removed by cutting, drilling and other processes to form an object, 3D printing adds layers of materials to virtual blueprints, which are created via CAD, and include molds and even actual products. This reduces significantly molding time. Complex casting alone, for example, is shortened from 90 days to just 10.
“We’re a long way from starting another industrial revolution,” Beijing Tiertime general manager Guo Ge told Caixin.com. “But if more improvements can be made in materials and operational capacity, manufacturing will be transformed.” Beijing Tiertime is the largest maker of 3D printers and rapid prototyping products in China.
“3D printing will not replace traditional volume manufacturing in the short term,” said Wang Jue, secretary of China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance.
This is echoed by Beijing Henglong manager Feng Tao. The Caixin.com article quoted Feng as saying mass production “is still the most economic” way to produce components.
Likewise, Renaud Anjoran of Sofeast Quality Control believes 3D printing will not disrupt mass production in the coming five years. “It is like the reshoring from China to the US movement: plenty of anecdotes in the press, but insignificant impact overall.”
“Three years ago, we spent about 1 million yuan ($160,000) in developing two models to make the outer shell of a car within three months. Similar development using traditional methods requires more than one year and will cost tens of millions of yuan from making the initial model to manufacturing in bulk,” said Lu.
However, Lu also noted such production cannot completely replace traditional manufacturing, especially for products that need to be made in large amounts and feature a high degree of similarity.
In the eyes of Wim Michiels, executive vice-president at Materialise NV, 3D printing is better for the environment in that there is no need to set up a full production line, which can involve a lengthy amount of time, high costs and the possible failure of the first sample due to imperfect accuracy.
Chinese companies also pursuing Additive Manufacturing, 3d Printing and Maker Movement
3D printing is still a long way from replacing mass manufacturing. But in China, as in America and Europe, the technology is changing the way products are developed and made. And by lowering the cost of entry, 3D printing could herald yet another new generation of Chinese manufacturing entrepreneurs.
The maker movement began in America, but it is taking off in China too. Maker fairs are now being held in some of the big cities. Officials seem happy to encourage this, and some talk of introducing 3D printers into schools, to spark pupils’ interest in careers in engineering.
One of the biggest firms in this field is Tiertime, which operates from Huairou on the outskirts of Beijing. Tiertime makes a range of 3D printers that produce objects from polymeric “alloys” of acrylonitrile, butadiene and styrene (ABS, the material from which Lego bricks are made). Tiertime’s printers are also often used in the prototyping business, but unlike those of AFS they sit in designers’ offices rather than on factory floors. Some are small enough to sit on a desk. They allow people to print their ideas directly, rather than having to send them off to be made by others.
The company also makes even smaller printers, called UP, which sell for less than 6,000 yuan. Personal printers like these are helping to create a Chinese version of the “maker movement”—a mixture of hobbyists and craft producers who, finding that 3D-printing technology greatly lowers the cost of going into production, are creating small manufacturing businesses.
There is a 12 meter long 3D printer at Beihang University. Wang Huaming, the laboratory’s chief scientist, told a digital-manufacturing seminar organised recently by the Laboratory of High Performance Computing, a government research institute, that this behemoth is being employed to make large and complex parts for China’s commercial-aircraft programme, which plans to build planes to rival those turned out by Airbus and Boeing.
These parts include titanium fuselage frames and high-strength steel landing-gear—objects that require the metal they are made from to be free of flaws which might cause them to fail. Printing such things, rather than making them from precast metal, will be a technical tour de force, and Dr Wang’s team is therefore working on the tricky problem of controlling the recrystallisation of metals after they have been melted by the laser.
Singapore Investing $500 million over 5 years
Singapore’s government has announced that it is investing heavily in 3D printing. Over the coming five years, the country will be digging deep to develop the technology, injecting a total of $500 million (£330.3 million, €390.4 million) into advanced manufacturing techniques in order to maintain its competitiveness with its south-east Asian neighbours.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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