Global Times：Despite accelerating growth, 3D printing industry still searching for more viable uses
Additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3D printing, has gained a lot of attention in recent years. It has been heralded as a technology to bring about the next industrial revolution. Growth figures lend support to this view. The 3D printing market has grown rapidly, and growth has only accelerated in recent years. However, the technology remains constrained by limitations on speed, material choice and the size of objects that can be fashioned, experts and industry professionals said.
3D-printed products sit on display at the Fourth World 3D Printing Technology Industry Expo on Thursday in Shanghai. Photo: IC
Li Lei stood watching as a 3D printer began creating a small sculpture at an industry expo in Shanghai on Thursday.
Li, who went to the expo to check out possible applications of the technology for his company, stared as the printer's extruder, moving in tiny increments, pumped out a thin layer of material that would serve as the sculpture's base. He kept watching as the device produced the next layer, and the next, and the next.
Almost 10 minutes later, the 3D printer had completed what appeared to be the roughly 1- centimeter-tall base of the sculpture.
At that point, Li had seen enough. Out of patience, he walked away.
"With such a slow printing speed, what can this technology be used for?" he asked at the Fourth World 3D Printing Technology Industry Expo, an event held in Shanghai from Tuesday to Thursday.
It is a fair question.
Additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3D printing, has been heralded as the technology that will ignite the next industrial revolution. Supporters promise that the technology will enable on-demand production, allow manufacturers to skip traditional production steps and create objects that are difficult to make with traditional manufacturing processes.
China's central government has also thrown its weight behind the technology by holding up 3D printing as a key part of its "Made in China 2025" plan to upgrade the country's manufacturing sector.
Yet, although the technology is into its third decade, it remains something a novelty in manufacturing due to its limitations.
Promise aside, 3D printing remains constrained by limitations on speed, material choice and the size of objects that can be created, according to experts and industry professionals.
Looking at the numbers, one can understand the optimism pervading the industry. The industry has grown rapidly over the last two decades and growth has only accelerated in recent years. The global 3D printing market grew by 25.9 percent year-on-year to $5.17 billion in 2015, according to an annual report issued by the consulting firm Wohlers Associates in April.
Over the last 27 years, the market has expanded at an average annual rate of 26.2 percent, the report said. In 2014, the market grew by 34.9 percent, its highest growth rate in 17 years.
As a latecomer to the industry, China's 3D printing industry has grown rapidly since 2011. From 2012 to 2014, the country's 3D printing market expanded from 1 billion yuan ($152.29 million) to 4 billion yuan, said Luo Jun, CEO of the World 3D Printing Technology Industry Association.
And in 2015, the market nearly doubled in size from the previous year to 7.8 billion yuan.
At the expo, Luo projected that the market's value will likely surpass 10 billion yuan this year.
In terms of units, China's 3D printer shipments exceeded 34,000 units in 2014, according to a report from International Data Corp (IDC) in January. The 2015 figure is expected to be more than 77,000.
Against such a backdrop, many technology companies have zeroed in on the industry as a potential growth business. For example, the France-based 3D software provider Dassault Systemes has been looking into 3D printing as a new way to design industrial parts.
"What is highly attractive with the technology is that you can redefine the shape of parts as you are no more constrained [by traditional manufacturing techniques]," Olivier Sappin, vice president of Transportation & Mobility Industry at Dassault, told the Global Times Thursday.
"So far it has been used a lot for prototypes [of potential future products], but more and more I think we'll start to see more industry application,"he noted.
In June 2015, Dassault announced a partnership with French technology firm Safran to look into developing a digital solution for the 3D printing of aerospace engine parts.
Yet, despite all the hypes and expectations surrounding the technology, 3D printing is rarely used to create products that are sold directly to customers.
Until now, the most popular 3D-printed products are in the business of dentistry.
Patients' customized needs for dental crowns, bridges and orthodontic braces offer a market niche for 3D printing, which could make the most of its application value, Liu Jin, general manager of Jiangsu Ouring 3D Technology Co, said at a conference held during the 3-day expo.
The problem of profits
All this sounds good, but there is a critical problem. China's 3D printing industry still isn't making money, Luo said.
"The Chinese 3D printing industry is generally not profitable in that the technology development hasn't reached a turning point for wider application," Luo noted.
Over the past 15 years, the 3D printing technology has changed very little, said Bill O'Neill, a professor of laser engineering at University of Cambridge and vice chairman of the World 3D Printing Technology Industry Association.
"The Chinese government is having a lot of inspirations … additive manufacturing will change the industrial position, but it will only change the industrial position if it can be faster. You need more speed, significantly more speed," O'Neill said at the industry conference on Wednesday.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has stressed the importance of 3D printing on several occasions over the last few years. During a speech to the State Council, China's cabinet, Li referred to 3D printing as "representative of a disruptive technology in the manufacturing industry … which has transformed traditional conceptions and methods of manufacturing," the South China Morning Post reported in August 2015.
"From my understanding, 3D printing will never completely replace mass production, and it may only drive the transformation of traditional industries by changing certain processes, therefore integration of the additive manufacturing and traditional production should be promoted," Yao Shan, a professor of material sciences and engineering at Dalian University of Technology, said at the conference on Wednesday.
The view was echoed by Gan Dunwen, deputy director general and chief engineer of the Locomotive and Car Research Institute of Beijing Zongheng Electro-Mechanical Technology Development Co, which supplies key parts and technical solutions to China's high-speed railway.
"We have no plan to use the technology to make locomotive parts yet because the material doesn't meet the requirements," Gan told the Global Times on Thursday.
"We are currently trying to use 3D printing for casting molds, which will reduce production cycle time and allow us to react quicker to different customer needs."
Newspaper headline: Unapplied technology