As buzzwords go, 3D printing is a phrase making the rounds, but few have the technology in their hands. Students from the Dongguan University of Technology’s mechanical engineering department, however, are already selling locally designed printers on Taobao, China’s biggest online retailer.
Reminiscent of the science fiction in Star Trek, the true-life version of the replicator, a machine that in the film and TV series can create water, food and objects on demand, has made its debut in the 21st, rather than the 24th century. Ahead of schedule by 300 years, the quickly developing technology is sailing our world into an era of more customized and sophisticated one-off production, reaffirming that nothing is impossible.
As reported by the state-run Economic Daily News, the first economic and business newspaper in China, clusters of development are putting our city, according to an article titled 3D Printing is Growing Rapidly in Dongguan, in the lead of the country’s emerging industry.
The onset of three-dimensional printing technology has hit warp-speed traveling toward a new medium for business and artists alike. It’s been over 30 years since Chuck Hull invented the first 3D printer in 1983. Now, artificial organs, guns, prototypes, aircraft engine parts, houses and hamburgers have all been printed in theoretical tests.
And if economist and author Jeremy Rifkin is correct, 3D printing is key to the future of manufacturing in what may become known as the Third Industrial Revolution. Renowned as the city of manufacturing, Dongguan, sensing shifting winds, has supported the development of the new technology since 2013 as an “emerging industry” on the Dongguan Government Annual Work Plan. It looks like 3D printing could be here to stay.
HATCHING LOCAL TALENT
The 3D printing lab at the Dongguan University of Technology (DGUT) was set up in 2008. Wu Jincheng, who spent two years in the lab majoring in mechanical engineering before graduating this month, introduced their 3D printer, a machine just twice the size of a desktop printer.
Using it to make a personal 3D portrait, he says the subject needs to first stand on a revolving platform. The computer scans shape and appearance, which are automatically generated and transferred. Then the printer will heat up the plastic material, melting it for the printer to begin sculpting, layer by successive layer. It’s like making a cake, but the 3D printer is a more sophisticated oven that recognizes small differences in color and shape.
Within three hours, a 20 centimeter-high portrait model is completed. “The cost is our 3D printer’s advantage. Printing the portrait this big can be as low as 5 to 6 Yuan,” Wu said.
Small improvements take him and his co-workers time and effort in experimentation. Since Wu’s sophomore year, when he was recruited for the team, he has been obsessed with putting what he learns into practice. “I can’t remember how many times I worked in the lab until midnight. And it just makes me so proud to make even simple progress,” Wu said.
“We started building an R&D team for 3D printing in 2008. At that time, we noted the industry’s potential from the outside world,” said Chen Shenggui, a professor in the Mechanical Engineering School of DGUT and the team’s tech guru. “At first, we wanted to bring in some 3D printers. But the cost was unaffordable.”
Fortunately, the technology has been holding to the open source development model. Knowing this, Chen’s bold idea in 2011 called on his students to form a research team to invent their own printer.
“We started from knowing nothing about the technology. In the first phase, the printing material was the problem,” Chen said. He let his students search the Internet for information. There were loads of materials that could be used for 3D printing, and durable plastic is the most basic, with two types being most popular. ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) has a longer lifespan, more strength, higher melting point, a stronger smell and a higher price than PLA (poly lactic acid).
Chen and his teamed targeted the creation of printing machines based on PLA and ABS formats. The team attracted 15 students at first, but due to the intensity of the experimentation and uncertain results, two quit. But with guidance and financial support from DGUT, the work realized in May 2012, the first student-designed desktop 3D printer in China.
In the wake of the invention and the hard work, they shined in national competition. Facing competitors from universities throughout Guangdong, DGUT won the special award at the Challenge Cup for Guangdong College Students Extracurricular Science and Technology Works Competition.
In 2013, the following year, DGUT made it to the final competition at the National Challenge Cup and took second prize. The success sparked the attention of national level officials from the Ministry of Education, who joined provincial and city officials to tour the university’s facilities.
In the wake of this invention and the work that it took to create it, the Dongguan students shined in national competition.
Wu represented DGUT at the national competition, and this year Wu’s three years of experience is being rewarded. Before he had even graduated, he got several job offers within Dongguan, with a salary offer around RMB 2,000 higher than that of his peers.
“Dongguan has a considerable market for 3D printing,” Chen said. Take the mode industry for instance. Traditionally, producing a prototype demands an assembly of multiple parts screwed or welded together by laborers. With a 3D printer, the same product can be designed on the computer and “printed” within a much shorter time. “I think any manufacturer would be tempted by the process,” Chen said.
Recognizing the potential, the students headed toward online commerce by opening an Taobao shop in 2013. The shop operates under the name Desheng 3D Printing Co. Ltd. As its technology matured, it has been able to provide a catalogue of six different 3D printers, ranging from RMB 2,000 to 10,000.
“Our 3D printers can print out some little gifts for recreational use. We have sold out of more than 20 sets of printers so far,” said Ma Peiling, a sophomore accounting major managing sales and promotions of the online shop.
“We aim to become the incubator of 3D printing talent for Dongguan, and even China. Because this industry isn’t merely about inventing, it also requires talent for management and marketing. Opening an online shop is a good platform for practice,” Chen said. With operations up and running, students from all of DGUT’s departments are running to the program.
RESHAPING AN INDUSTRY
Although the student-designed 3D printers haven’t met standards of industrial use, the demand in the job market for the students in Chen’s program is a testament to the quickly developing industry.
Since 2013, Dongguan has been among the first cities in China to put 3D printing into its annual work plan. The attention showcases its position—a strategy for Dongguan to escape its current economic dilemma. Over the past few decades, Dongguan’s state-of-the-art manufacturing capability and clusters of enterprises won it the name of “World Factory.” However, lower revenues from labor-intensive manufacturing are pressing for change. With shifting raw material costs, human resources and the relocation of factories, the local economy is facing new challenges. In recent years, the demand to transform and upgrade into a modern manufacturing center at the international level has been widely felt.
Promoting new growth, land use is being made more convenient, tax incentives are being created and major scientific, technological and financial support will be provided to qualified enterprises and institutions that would invest in research, development or the application of 3D printing technology. For instance, the Hengli Synergy and Innovation Molding Center, an innovation platform intending to apply 3D printing, was the first institution to win special city support with a subsidy of RMB 50 million.
The Dongguan Cloud Computing Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (the Academy) in Songshan Lake focuses on 3D printing R&D and has been rated as a key development center. Guangdong Silver Age, a national high-tech enterprise and one of Dongguan’s 14 public listed companies, was granted RMB 25 million from provincial government for its foray into ABS production materials.
Walking into the Cloud Computing Center in Songshan Lake, two big printers are on display. The center was set up by the Academy, which is the leading 3D printer design and manufacturing center in Dongguan. The first 3D printer is based on the technology of melting and precipitation. The second-generation printer is based on digital light processing (DLP), which is said to have reached China’s leading level.
“The second one is not printing on traditional plastics, but on liquid photosensitive resin, so printing becomes easier and more elaborate,” said Zhu Fenghua, the vice dean of the Academy. Since 2010 he and his team have been devoted to inventing 3D printers. The second-version printer was put into mass production this year, and a single printer can sell for over RMB 1 million. “The second-generation printers are suitable for clothing, shoes and hats and mold industries. When we took it to the science and industry exhibition, customers welcomed it. They set orders and we produced 3D printers for them. So far, we have sold more than 100,” Zhu said.
With shifting raw material costs, human resources and the relocation of factories, the local economy is facing new challenges.
“Dongguan is a perfect place to develop 3D printing, and the mold industry was the first industry to apply the technology,”said Gong Jiayong, assisting director of the Dongguan Strategic Emerging Industry Research Center. Gong thinks that Dongguan’s “industrial superiority” is the key. Dongguan is equipped with a complete supply and demand chain and a powerful ability in manufacturing. A market for 3D printing is forming, and the government wants to play the role of a “visible hand.”
THE HYPE IS STRONG
Establishing techniques that make manufacturing universally accessible is probably the most radical revolution that 3D printing could bring about, and if it comes true, it will have a huge impact on the geography of supply chains. “If we can print a shoe by ourselves, why off-shore the business to countries like China?” said Dr. Huang Huiyu.
This question of natural response may be of concern to China’s economy in the future, but not now. “The benefit of developing 3D printing surely outweighs the loss, but the current problem isn’t about the threat caused, but an influx of capital,” said Dr. Huang, a DGUT professor specializing in the study of the manufacturing industry who has been studying 3D printing for four years.
Recently, the emerging industry has been given enormous publicity, boosting the notoriety of related subjects. For instance, after Guangdong Silver Age announced that it would step into production of materials in March, its stock price soared 30 percent. It’s also the first company in Dongguan to become a member of the 3D Printing Industry Association of China.
“Although Dongguan is gaining ground in the market, the technology will probably still take many decades to fully mature,” Dr. Huang said. At present, enterprises claiming involvement in 3D printing might be given tax and land use incentives. They are also, before implementing real or practical uses, finding that speculators have created a mushroom in the market.
According to statics released by the association, estimates from 2012 assess the global market opportunity for 3D printing around US$21 billion, with China accounting for US$1.3 billion of it. Before 2015, that market value in China is expected to reach RMB 10 billion.
Dr. Huang agrees that 3D printing does have market potential, but warns that the current anxiety might stunt expected returns. The industry is concentrated in uses for aircraft, military, medical, automobile, clothing and molds, but the application for the common life remains limited. One obstructive factor is cost.
Currently, most 3D printers for industrial use are sold for tens of thousands of Yuan, while some go for millions. What’s more, some printing materials are overly expensive. Technology is advancing day by day, so the 3D printer you buy today may be obsolete tomorrow. All those factors can repel interested stakeholders.
According to statics released by the association, estimates form 2012 assess the global market opportunity for 3D printing around US$21 billion, with China accounting for US$1.3 billion of it.
In the industrial market, 3D printing isn’t near replacing traditional production methods. “3D printers can now print out a specially shaped cup, but it still can’t be used for drinking, because the materials fail to meet safety and environmental standards.” The story shows that 3D printing and traditional manufacturing each have advantages, but 3D printing is being called an “accelerator” that is bettering the production process.
Some industries will feel the impact of 3D printing earlier. The mold industry is one of them. Luo Biahui, CEO of gmold.info.com, a professional website for the mold industry, said that the industry, a pillar covering one fifth of Dongguan’s GDP, will become a frontier. He estimates that over the next 5 to 10 years, 30 percent of the business will be replaced by 3D printing. “For the mold industry, making models or prototypes is its key production. Factories in other industries will transfer model manufacturing to mold factories. However, the current 3D printing is specialized at making models with high efficiency and lower manual work, so it will replace much of the works of mold factories,” Luo said.
Instead of evading the challenge, some factories have tested the effectiveness of 3D printing. Simon Wright, manager of a Foreign Invested Enterprise in Gaobu Town that specializes in the production of molds for shoe manufacturers, said, “They sent the CAD files and sent it to Europe and USA where they will put it to 3D printing. It is effective in making cosmetic, aesthetic and design-based products.”
When asked, why not choose a local company, Wright said that when they began three years ago, he had no clue industrial 3D printing existed in Dongguan. But if the service meets his requirements in the future, he would consider an easier way to do the same thing.
HARNESSING AN OPPORTUNITY
In want of cutting a slice from the 3D printing cake, pioneers in Dongguan have already started practicing consumer applications.
Wedding statues is one of the hottest frontiers for consumer use. In Hengli Town, the city’s first 3D printing exhibition center, covering an area of 400 sq. meters, was opened last June. Zhiwei Additive Manufacturing Co. operates the center.
Couples create their “selfies” under the scanner, which will become 3D printed miniature plastic copies within an hour. Huang Zhiwei, manager of the company said that the printer can make human-sized colorful sculptures with high definition from reading the CAD files. What’s more, they have adopted the technology of making lifelike 3D metal statues in a few hours. Printing with metal is considered the most challenging field for the technology. “A metal portrait can withstand the invasion from time and space, making it everlasting for couples,” Mr. Huang said. When they displayed it on a street in Guangzhou for a day last October, they received over 20 orders.
Huang’s business is still hampered by the high price of his product compared to traditional competitors. “It takes over RMB 1,000 to print out a high quality statue,” he said. Mr. Huang’s startup is gaining media attention as the first in Dongguan to integrate 3D printing with weddings.
Another frontier is the design industry. Sculpting is an effective way to materialize an artist’s idea. But inspirations that demand complicated structures cannot easily be shaped with traditional means. Companies like Shapeways, a New York based startup company provided 3D printing services to users, allowing them to design and upload 3D printable files, and Shapeways will print the objects for them by using a variety of materials, including food-safe ceramics. As of June 20, 2012, Shapeways had printed and sold more than one million user-created objects.
Following Shapeways’ success Dongguan entrepreneurs are targeting the increasing demand of customized consumer products. Chen Jing set up her 3D startup service, makerlm.com, last March. In the article 3D Printing is Growing Rapidly in Dongguan, the site is reported as the first online comprehensive 3D platform for users in China. Within two weeks of going live, it had attracted 50 thousand hits.
Couples create their “selfies” under the scanner, which will become 3D printed miniature plastic copies within an hour.
The slogan on its homepage reads, “Makerlm.com aims to build a platform for the creative designers to create, produce and sell.” Advertisement on the front-page shows a wire holder on a desktop, which is a popular item. “With only a great idea, we cannot generate a Chinese ‘Steve Jobs.’ We must develop a fair revenue-sharing mechanism to reward the great ideas. So our job is to help the Steve Jobs to produce and sell. He just needs to give us his good ideas,” Chen said.
Their products include customized phone cases, pendants and lamps. In 2010, Chen spent RMB 2 million to bring in a SLA (Stereo Lithography Appearance) printer from the U.S. and for a factory in Changping Town. Her quick thinking won orders from giants like Apple, Luis Vitton, Toyota, Polo, Armani and Versace. It also raised their name recognition.
From those examples, it can be seen that exploring 3D printing prevails in Dongguan now. Both governors and entrepreneurs are joining in the revolution of manufacturing. Someone said that doing good should be all that technology is about. The common ground they are seeking is to harness this technology to make life better.