When the concept of additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, made its first appearance in the 1980s, the technology available at the time was too costly and basic to make it a commercially viable method of production. In recent years, however, the technology has made a come-back with a big bang, offering an entirely new way of how we manufacture products. Especially for China, a country known for mass-production and cheap labour, the proliferation of 3D printing could have substantial consequences. In response, Chinaâ€™s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has formed the â€śChina 3D Printing Technology Industry Allianceâ€ť to fund 10 research centers at an investment of RMB 200 million.
How it works
The basis of 3D printing is a digital design file that can be created either from scratch by using a relevant CAD software or by scanning an item with a special scanner that will create the file for you. The 3D printer reads this file and then in turn â€śprintsâ€ť the item by adding tens of thousands of microscopic layers of material. It is possible to print in plastic, ceramics, metals, wax, glass and more, with a process that softens these materials so they can be utilised for printing.
Why the hype?
3D printing could affect a wide range of industries, as new possibilities of manufacturing become reality. In the medical field, for example, companies have experimented with printing prosthetics and even human tissue, opening up a world of new opportunities. Clothing companies have created custom-made shoes and garments, products made to fit exactly the person who will wear them. Even printing with food is not unheard of, in the form of specialised chocolates with individualised designs and purĂ©ed food in a retirement home in Germany.
The bottom line here is that, similar to Industry 4.0, 3D printing will allow us to manufacture highly individualised products. Sizes, colours, materials, and more can be made to the specifications of the individual consumer. Indeed, it is likely that people will be able to print their own products in their living rooms, buying digital design files from companies directly online.
3D printing could change the way we manufacture in several ways:
What it means for China
China and India are pegged to be promising emerging markets for 3D printing. Together, they are expected to achieve a 37% CAGR from 2014 to 2020 in the 3D printing market. In 2013, around 22,000 3D printers were manufactured in China, a number set to grow quadruple in the next 4 years. While global competition still largely dominates the field, China is catching up, exporting over 50% of printers made locally to foreign markets.
3D printing has already been adopted in some industries in China, such as the automotive sector, which actively uses the technology for prototyping. However, one of the bigger challenges 3D printing faces in the country is that high-quality materials are still not readily available, especially compared to more advanced markets such as Germany. This, coupled with a lack of IP laws covering this technology, shows that there is still much room for improvement but also opportunity in additive manufacturing in China.
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