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3D printing proves a disruptive force in Asean manufacturing

3D printing adoption is set to accelerate in Southeast Asia after a delayed start

Countries in Southeast Asia are starting to embrace 3D printing as it moves from niche technology to one with real business applications.

In the Asia-Pacific excluding Japan region, shipments for 3D printers are expected to grow 37.1% a year from just over 195,000 units in 2014 to nearly 946,000 units in 2019, according to IDC research.

Pete Basiliere, research vice-president at Gartner, said organisations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region were slower to adopt 3D printing technologies because it was first invented in the US some 30 years ago before migrating to western Europe. But things have since accelerated. “The adoption of 3D printing has accelerated from that small base,” he said.

Growth in Asia-Pacific is driven by the need to reduce manufacturing cycle times and prototyping cost, said Lim Mun Chun, market analyst at IDC Malaysia. Other drivers include the education sector with supportive government policies in countries like Singapore, as well as by verticals such as aerospace, manufacturing and healthcare.

The manufacturing industry remains a key user of 3D-printed products, where the technology has shortened the design and manufacturing cycle by allowing prototypes for parts to be built in a matter of days. This has dramatically reduced costs and created opportunities for smaller manufacturers to be competitive.

3D printing has also revolutionised traditional supply chains, enabling companies to reduce expensive and wasteful physical inventories. Parts can now be digitally stored and manufactured on demand, allowing manufacturers to shift from having a physical to virtual inventory. This helps to reduce manufacturing cycle times, as well as warehousing costs, as parts are produced only when and closer to where they are needed.

“Manufacturers see 3D printing as a tool for on-demand manufacturing, giving them speed and flexibility in the marketplace and the ability to cater for unpredictable demand,” said Lim.

“Manufacturers see 3D printing as a tool for on-demand manufacturing, giving them speed and flexibility in the marketplace and the ability to cater for unpredictable demand”
Lim Mun Chun, IDC Malaysia

Taking a big step towards enabling manufacturers to have a virtual inventory in the region are two 3D printing service providers in Singapore, the UCT Additive Manufacturing Centre and a 3D printing factory set up by Fast Radius.

Staffed by a team of 16, UCT’s facility in Singapore is its Southeast Asia base and has produced more than 10,000 parts since it opened in 2015. It offers prototyping, part optimisation, 3D engineering services, consumer parts production and virtual warehousing.

The entry of another large-scale 3D printing service provider such as Fast Radius points to a market that is maturing and growing, said Lavi Lev, senior vice-president, Asia division at UCT.

“It opens the door to individuals and small companies to manufacture parts with no capital equipment investment, and allows large corporations to speed up research and development through rapid prototyping,” he said.

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The Fast Radius facility is located at a UPS site in Singapore. The company’s Fast Radius on-demand production platform is used to produce industrial parts, which will be delivered to manufacturers in key Asian cities within 24 hours via UPS’s transport network.

“3D printing is disrupting manufacturing supply chains in Asia, and UPS’s on-demand manufacturing network enables customers to benefit from a distributed supply chain model,” said Rick Smith, co-founder and CEO of Fast Radius.

“We believe this facility can plug the gap between testing and taking products to market.”

The service provider is eyeing manufacturers that want rapid small-batch manufacturing, those that want to make slow-moving or out-of-production parts, as well as manufacturers with small to medium batch runs of five to 5,000 pieces.

The rapid pace of innovation

Besides the manufacturing industry, 3D printing has made other inroads in Asean. For instance, 3D printing is used in the healthcare industry to produce customised exoskeletons and prosthetics, as well as 3D-printed orthopaedic implants.

The cardiac centre at Singapore’s KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) is using 3D-printed heart models to help cardiothoracic surgeons plan complex procedures and as a model for simulation-based training, especially when pathology specimens of real hearts may not be readily available.

“Our pre-surgical preparatory work was previously guided by our hands-on experience, but these 3D-printed heart models have enabled us to be more efficient and precise, especially with patients with complex anatomies,” said Nakao Masakazu, consultant at the KKH’s cardiothoracic surgery service.

Another 3D printing breakthrough in medicine is the development of customised tablets at the National University of Singapore (NUS). These are printed layer by layer with a 3D printer, developed by a team of researchers.

“For a long time, personalised tablets has been a mere concept as it was far too complex or expensive to be realised. This new tablet fabrication method is a game changer,” said Soh Siow Ling, assistant professor at the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the NUS Faculty of Engineering. “It can be applied at individualised settings where physicians could produce customised pills on the spot for patients, or in mass-production settings by pharmaceutical companies.”

Meanwhile, in Mynamar, 3D printing technology has already transformed life for farmers. Non-profit organisation Proximity Designs makes and prototypes parts for tools for Myanmar farmers. Irrigation systems, solar pumps and other tools have helped farmers to reduce costs and labour, and improve yields.

In line with 3D printing’s rapid takeup, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) launched the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing in 2016. The centre is set to receive S$83m in funding from industry and government partners over the next 10 years. Researchers at the centre have developed innovations like a new ultrasound device that uses 3D-printed lenses to produce sharper images and have a 3D-printed and ready-to-fly drone with embedded electronics using aerospace-grade material.

Meanwhile, Singapore startup Gilmour Space Technologies successfully launched a rocket using 3D-printed fuel.

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