China accelerates 3-D printing

willspring55, December 3, 2013

By P Davidson & N Trentman

China is stepping up development of 3-D printing, challenging U.S. industry’s sizable lead in applying the technology in manufacturing.

3-D printers and robots substitute for a traditional factory’s
clanking presses and churning milling machines. One printer spews layer
after layer of green molten plastic onto a canvas until an iPhone case
takes shape in seven hours. Soon after, the versatile printer molds a
pair of black high-heel shoes — a more complex task that takes 26 hours.

“Since
2012, we have seen a strong increase in demand for our printers,” says
Ricky Ye, CEO and founder of DF Robot, which both manufactures printers
and uses them to make product prototypes on a contract basis.

3-D
printers look like document printers but crank out 3-dimensional
objects. Based on a digital design, they lay down hundreds or thousands
of layers of powdered metal or plastic until parts or entire products
are sculpted.

Since the 1980s, U.S. manufacturers largely have
used the printers to quickly create prototypes. In recent years, a
growing number have turned out limited runs of actual products, such as
surgical tools and medical implants, as well as certain parts in
airplanes, cars and other machines. Entrepreneurs and hobbyists are also
snapping up inexpensive “personal” printers to make jewelry, toys and
other trinkets.

In China, 3-D printers are making prototypes and
quirky objects for consumers but — apart from artificial teeth and
dental implants — lag in end-user part production. That’s the more
critical sector that has the potential to transform manufacturing.

Whether
deployed in China or the U.S., 3-D printing can yield significant
reductions in labor costs. Just a few employees oversee dozens of
automatic printers, matching the production of several hundred or
thousands of workers in standard factories.

3-D printers also cut
waste, reduce lead times for product rollouts and are better than
conventional factory machines at customizing objects. But they’re
expensive and not adept at mass production, making them most suitable
for limited runs of niche products.

In China, about 17,000 mostly
personal 3-D printers are in operation, estimates Terry Wohlers,
president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates. The U.S. has about
47,000, and nearly half are industrial, he says.

Yet China is
closing the gap. The country’s stock of 3-D printers has grown more
than sevenfold since 2008, Wohlers says. He says national interest in
the technology intensified early this year after President Obama
proclaimed in his State of the Union address: “3-D printing has the
potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

“The
comment more than lit a spark in China — it started a bonfire,” Wohlers
says, adding that Chinese sales of 3-D printers have surged.

Their
growing popularity is laying the foundation for wider usage of 3-D
printing in manufacturing. Wohlers says the Chinese government and
industry ultimately intend to use the technology to make high-tech parts
and “high-value finished products.”

For now, even the spread of
personal printers has huge potential, says Ye of DF Robot. “It takes
forever to produce a prototype or a mold,” he says. “Once you have a 3-D
printer at home or in the office, you can speed up the innovation
process. Many more people will be able transform their ideas into real
products.”

China’s government, meanwhile, is sowing the seeds for
industrial production, opening a 3-D research center this year and
planning nine more. With Chinese labor costs rising sharply the past few
years, the country has been losing production to factories in Vietnam
and Bangladesh that pay lower wages. 3-D printing can help preserve
China’s reputation as “the factory of the world” while expanding beyond
labor-intensive assembly lines, Ye says.

Developing the industry,
however, will require retraining a work force of old-line factory
employees. “We will need less unskilled workers if we use 3-D printers
more frequently,” Ye says.

Also, few Chinese engineers have the
technical know-how to build the printers, says Jack Wu, the China
representative of EOS E-Manufacturing Solutions, a German company that
operates a research facility in Shanghai. Entrepreneurs and
manufacturers, meanwhile, must be educated.

“There are customers
that buy the most expensive 3-D printer and only use it once a week,”
says Kim Francois, head of the Chinese unit of Belgium-based
Materialise, which builds printers and does contract printing and
research. “Of course, such an investment will never pay off.”

Francois
teaches Chinese elementary and high schools students how to use the
printers. “This is the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs,” she
says. “If they get to use 3-D-printers early in their lives, they will
potentially become much more innovative than their parents.”

3-D,
she adds, can help China transition from a “copy culture” that makes
products designed elsewhere to one that turns out more domestically
designed goods.

Wu thinks China will move swiftly to try to close
ground with Western nations. “Companies, schools, universities and
individuals will start using this,” he says.

U.S. officials are
taking notice. Ralph Resnick, founding director of the National Additive
Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown in Ohio, says China’s
advances underscore the need for the U.S. to continue to invest in the
technology.

“I think China’s initiative has the potential to
continue to make China more competitive,” Resnick says. As other
countries develop 3-D, “we have an innovation edge that has been
slipping.”

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