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3D printing brings new dimension

3D printing is expected to become increasingly popular in Hong Kong and beyond, as the price of making objects continues to fall and as technology improves

Manufacturing is set to come back to Hong Kong – albeit in a different guise, thanks to recent rapid development in 3D printing technology coupled with the city’s proximity to manufacturing bases on the mainland and nearby Southeast Asia, industry experts say.

3D printing allows physical objects to be made in the same way that an ink-jet printer creates images on paper. Objects are built in a layer-by-layer process, as opposed to more conventional methods such as moulding and machining. Companies use 3D printers to create product designs and prototypes, as well as finished goods in low volumes, using molten plastic and other materials.

The technology has been around since the 1980s but only in recent years have advances lowered costs enough to make it affordable to mainstream businesses, and even consumers.

A recent report  by research company MarketsandMarkets forecast that global revenues in the 3D printing market are expected to reach US$8.41 billion by 2020, rising by a compound annual rate of 23 per cent. While North America holds the largest revenue share, closely followed by Europe, the report noted that Asia is the fastest-growing and most promising market for 3D printing due to high industrial growth, technological awareness, supportive government policies, and investment in R&D.

In Hong Kong, some attention has focused on its applications in the medical sector, such as clinical trials conducted by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Productivity Council to make finger-joint implants using 3D printed models, and help doctors plan delicate surgery.

“Within Hong Kong, the majority of people who use 3D printers provide 3D printing services or service companies making prototypes of products they are going to eventually manufacture,” says Jonathan Buford, founder of Makible, which produces a cost-effective 3D printer called MakiBox targeting hobbyists.

While there are no official statistics on the size and scale of the industry in Hong Kong, he estimates there are probably 50 to 100 active rapid prototyping companies with some sort of presence locally.

The sector is dominated by service bureaus providing a range of services such as modelling, scanning and assembly, as opposed to print-on-demand outfits focusing on the printing service alone. Such companies tend to employ designers in Hong Kong who act as liaison between local customers with the service bureau’s 3D printing operations across the border, Buford says.

“Most customers will come in with a complete design, and their job will be to try and understand their needs. Sometimes, even though they come with complete designs, there may be a need for adjustments, and it’s good to have designers to act as boundary layer for that,” Buford adds.

The actual 3D printing is often done in facilities over the border, where they employ sculptors as well as hand prototyping technicians for finishing and assembly work on printed parts.

Edmand  Cheung, managing director of Jardine OneSolution Hong Kong, expects 3D printing to become increasingly popular in the city as well as regionally, as the price of making objects continues to fall and as technology – with printing speed a main current limiting factor – improves. The company is a major Hong Kong partner of HP, widely tipped to enter the market in mid-2014.

“Initially, it would be rapid prototyping that sees the biggest potential,” Cheung says. “A lot of industries are not using it because it’s just too expensive and slow. 3D printing can create excitement as it lets people unleash their creativity. You will be seeing a lot of new things coming to the market when the price of quality 3D printing comes down to an affordable level and speed gets more reasonable.”

“Manufacturing companies will use this to replace some of the moulding they did previously. In the past, when manufacturing companies came up with a new product, it took a long time to design and create the moulding. It was also very costly,” he adds.

Cheung says that as 3D printing becomes mainstream, Hong Kong is likely to benefit. While traditionally the prototyping phase of production processes is tied to manufacturing, the availability of 3D printing means prototyping of all sorts of products can be done locally, close to the design talent.

Buford’s firm is investing in a 15,000 sq ft facility to provide end-to-end 3D printing and manufacturing services for crowd-funded projects such as those on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. He says the company will help crowd-funded projects from around the world go from initial design, through to costing, prototyping and providing technical support, as well as the low-volume manufacture of the finished goods.

“We are going to bring manufacturing back to Hong Kong in a big way,” he says, adding that the facility is expected to come online by the middle of next year.