There has been a frenzy over 3D printing in recent months amid growing signs that the technology has the potential to replace traditional mass manufacturing methods.
The new technology provides a way to custom-make products at small factories, at a reduced cost and lead time. The technology is increasingly being used to make niche products such as parts for Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner.
Now the government-funded Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI, 工研院) believes that 3D printing, denominated additive printing, could benefit the nation’s manufacturing industries.
Abandoning traditional ways of squeezing profits by using mass production to save costs, the institute aims to help firms explore new ways to apply the technique and add value to existing products.
To provide easier access to 3D printing technologies, ITRI last month launched the Additive Manufacturing and Laser Application Center.
“Our goal is to create new applications and to help firms upgrade their technologies, or transform their products into something with a higher added value,” director of the center, Horng Jibin (洪基彬) said during an interview with the Taipei Times on Aug. 1.
The center is located in Greater Tainan.
ITRI believes 3D printing and laser technologies can be used to manufacture medical devices and are suitable for industrial design.
A piece of metal for skull reconstruction made using 3D printing technology can be 60 percent to 70 percent lighter than ones made using traditional techniques, Horng said, as 3D printing can create materials with a porous structure.
ITRI has adopted a laser sintering technique, one of the better-established rapid prototyping methods for 3D stringent, depositing thin layers of metal powder to form complete objects in one go.
ITRI engineers are further developing cutting-edge 3D printing and laser techniques in the center’s four laboratories, in preparation for patent licensing for commercial use.
Initially, ITRI plans to assist companies in launching pilot production at the labs, using the institute’s 3D printing machine and laser equipment.
At the moment, ITRI has licensed its 3D printing technology to screwmaker Taiwan Shan Yin International Co (慶達) to manufacture dental implants, which are used in tooth restorations.
An ordinary screw may cost very little, but “a dental implant can be sold for NT$6,000 [US$200]. This shows how we aim to help local firms add value to their existing products,” Horng said.
ITRI aims to use 3D printing and laser technologies to boost revenue of equipment and products to NT$20 billion in the next four years to 2017 from the current NT$4 billion a year, Horng said.
Profit margins could be lifted to 23 percent from the current 18 percent, by selling equipment and new applications, rather than just making low-margin laser modules, he said.
Revenue from 3D printing alone is expected to expand to US$11.4 billion and further to US$18.9 billion in 2015, compared with US$8.9 billion last year, with the biggest portion coming from 3D printers, the Photonics Industry and Technology Development Association (PIDA, 光電科技工業協進會) said.
“Taiwan’s 3D printing industry is still in its infancy,” PIDA analyst Frank Fan (范懷仁) told the Taipei Times.
Jumping on the 3D printing bandwagon, several local companies including semiconductor and LCD equipment makers Contrel Technology Co (東捷科技) and Gallant Precision Machining Co (均豪) have set up new subsidiaries, or operations to develop equipment, or related applications, according to ITRI.
Last month, Getac Technology Corp (神基科技) formed a 3D printing joint venture with Japanese 3D printer maker Matsuura Machinery.
However, there are concerns about 3D printing technologies.
Hon Hai Precision Industry Co (鴻海精密) chairman Terry Guo (郭台銘) warned that 3D printing was only media hype.
Gou strongly opposed the idea that 3D printing will launch a third industrial revolution as it is not a brand new technology.
“Hon Hai introduced the company’s first 3D [printing] equipment 30 years ago,” Gou said.
Starting as a module manufacturer, Hon Hai now is the world’s biggest electronics manufacturer, counting Apple Inc as its top client.
Horng said it is true that 3D printing is not new, as the technique has been evolving.
“Additive manufacturing technology is maturing. It can make products with quality approaching to that made by subtractive technology and it [additive technology] is nearing its commercial use,” Horng said.
The technology is suitable for making small-volume niche parts, rather than as a substitute for the traditional module manufacturing technique, that has long been used to make large volumes of components, he said.
In subtractive manufacturing, products are made by removing materials.
In the initial stage, 3D printers were used to make plastic prototypes, but the technique is now being used to make the actual metal parts, Horng said.
That has greatly boosted the commercial use of 3D printing technology, he said.
Yulong Motor Co (裕隆汽車) has used 3D printing techniques to create a prototype of an engine for its Luxgen-brand motors to reduce marketing time, abandoning traditional modeling, which is time-consuming and expensive.
TYC Brother Industrial Co (堤維西) plans to make automotive front lights using 3D printing technology licensed from ITRI, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.