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Basic Concepts in the 3D Printing Industry
3D printing was already presented to the public during the 1980s and has been in development for over thirty years. It has only recently begun to obviously be on the scale of an industry.
To reach the current results, it was mainly benefits from breakthroughs in materials, semiconductors, and software technology that enabled 3D printing to suddenly go from laboratories to the consumer market. Another important factor was the lifting of patent restrictions, and owing to a few key patents’ no longer being protected, more companies and talent have been able to enter the market.
Under the influence of capital, technology, and talent, 3D printing is beginning to enter the takeoff stage.
Currently the 3D printing industry is not mature enough and is still in a very early stage of development. There are just over ten types of printing technology, but there are as many materials that can be used as there are stars in the sky. This signifies that the 3D printing industry lacks inspection standards, and this is limiting its development, especially for performance and safety-sensitive applications. Furthermore, it is temporarily difficult for products that require mass production to use 3D printing.
L In addition to rapid improvements in hardware and printing technology, the 3D printing value chain and eco-system is also quickly developing. The benefits of mature Internet applications and a more open software and hardware environment have enabled the status of personalized manufacturing and printing services providers to be increasingly apparent, and they have also brought about more diverse applications for the 3D printing industry.
Looking at the development of value chains, printing materials was the earliest domain to become profitable, followed by printer sales, software supply, and finally printing service providers. Currently, the industry is entering an upswing in printer sales; consequently, it is mainly manufacturers and retailers of 3D printers that have the highest market visibility.
If we look at the ability to generate profits and development time, with more development time, most 3D printers’ abilities to generate profits will rapidly decline; whereas, the profitability of software and services will gradually increase. For materials, due to factors, such as the threshold for entering the market being relatively high and patent restrictions, the ability to generate profits is expected remain stable.
A Quick Look at Taiwanese 3D Printing Firms
As we covered the technological structure of 3D printing above, the following sections consists of interviews with the 3D printing companies, Renishaw and XYZprinting, and the research firm, ITRI.
Renishaw is a global engineering technologies company, and its Taiwan subsidiary held a year-end lunch for the media where it introduced the company's strengths and goals for 2015. General Manager Chobby Lai said that the company is currently focused on applying its 3D printing technology in tooling, dies, and molds, especially for manufacturing interior equipment for airplanes.
The company's Managing Director of Hong Kong, Jean-Marc Meffre and Taiwan subsidiary General Manager Chobby Lai hosted the event, and both gave a presentation. As 3D printing is one of the next big things in 2015, Chobby Lai stated that the company is mainly focused on applying its 3D printing technology to tooling, dies, and molds, especially for manufacturing interior equipment for airplane. In other words, their focus is only on industrial use.
Chobby Lai stated that Renishaw will keep focusing on the industrial use of 3D printing and on developing high-end and professional metal-related printing technologies.
Chobby Lai emphasized that the company's 3D printers will be launched under the principle of “special printers for special usage”, instead of fostering all-in-one printers.
XYZprinting, a Taiwanese 3D printer provider, debuted its first stereolithographic (SL) 3D printer, Nobel 1.0 on January 27. The company is eyeing a wide range of applications and with more fancy quality, such as printing out jewelry. The company's CEO Simon Shen revealed that there are still five to six new models that will be announced in 2015.
Simon Shen is confident about the company’s prospects in 2015, “There are still five to six new 3D printers to be announced, so you guys (reporters) will see me very often this year.” He also revealed that the company has an upcoming food printer.
Gary Shu, Senior Manager at the Market Development Division of XYZprinting, explained that SL is the gold standard for accuracy and resolution in the 3D printing world, reaching layer thicknesses and feature sizes that are worlds ahead of what is possible with fused deposition modeling (FDM).
Gary Shu further illustrated that the process of SL is pretty straightforward: a laser is used to draw on the surface of a liquid plastic resin that hardens when exposed to a certain wavelength of light. The laser draws and hardens a layer at a time until the entire model is built. It’s simple, reliable, and quiet.
However, SL is traditionally one of the most expensive 3D printing processes. With pricey lasers and high-precision optical components, SL 3D printers can easily cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Surprisingly, the Nobel 1.0 only costs NT$ 54990.
Meanwhile, the Nobel 1.0 was awarded by Review.com as one of the EDITOR's CHOICE AWARDS.
Gary Shu expressed that the R&D team of XYZprinting is currently covering all kinds of 3D printing technologies, such as SL 3D printers and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) as seen in the series of da Vinci printers.
Gary Shu said that the company is aiming to manufacture B2C all-in-one printers before the 3D printing industry steps into a more mature market. He further pointed out that the Moore's law doesn't apply to the 3D printing industry, which has relied more on materials science; consequently, the progress of 3D printing is hard to predict, chronologically.
The Industrial Technology Research Institute also has two 3D printing laboratories, which can be distinguished from one another by their use of different materials. One specializes in fused deposition modeling (FDM) and produces mostly consumed plastics, which are intended for entry-level product applications like action figures, lampshades, and dentures.
Meanwhile, the other employs Razar additive manufacturing (AM) to produce consumed metals in order to penetrate into high-end applications , such as those used in the aerospace industry, objects printed under selective laser sintering (SLS), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and melted and extrusion modeling (MEM).
Hong Ji-bin, Director of Additive Manufacturing and Laser Application at Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) Southern Region Campus of ITRI clearly explained how Additive Manufacturing Technology plays an important role in 3D printing.
Additive manufacturing technology provides an innovative manufacturing process which gets rid of restrictions found in traditional processes. This process makes it easy to build-up complex shapes, structures, and conformal cooling channels. This process also facilitates creating high-value, innovative products. The technology is applicable for the mold manufacturing industry, the biomedical industry, and automotive, cultural and creative industries.
ITRI offers technical services including the development and certification of specialized powder, light and special structural designs, featured product development, and pilot-runs for metal additive manufacturing products.
However, the three-dimensional (3D) scanner with infrared projector is a must for scanning objects.
To capitalize on the recent wave of interest in direct 3D printing, ITRI is offering a 3D scanner that uses an IR projector to scan objects. An IR wavelength optical diffractive projector projects a specific pattern onto the target object, and a pair of cameras detects the reflected light in order to determine its depth information and thus when constructing the 3D model it is not limited by the object’s size, even when it is in motion. Owing to the assistance of a 3D volumetric processing algorithm, the scanning precision is finer than 0.3 mm.
ITRI's 3D scanning technology is expected to nurture the growth of a 3D printing ecosystem. Among other uses, it is widely suitable for personalized 3D model construction, 3D image inspection or measurement, 3D positioning, 3D printing, and 3D visioning or inspection.
Hong Ji-bin pointed out that the inkjet head and temperature control are two decisive key factors at FDM laboratory, whereas the razar beam, power bed, and other factors are key at Razar AM laboratory.
Products from the FDM laboratory are mainly designed for personal use, and it will help to popularize it and gain acceptance and also be used in professional settings for basic industrial applications. When talking about products from the Razar AM laboratory, they are more complicated and fancy, with higher quality, and feature special printers for special uses.
(ED: Korbin Lan/ TR: PHil Sweeney)