Manufacturing News

Catching up fast in 3D printing

China is estimated to have a market in the new tech worth 20 billion yuan by 2018

A patient suffering from a malignant tumor recently received unconventional, almost science fiction-like yet real and successful treatment. His doctor replaced five affected segments of his spine with a 19-centimeter-long metal part that was created using a 3D printer.

Doctor Liu Zhongjun performed the surgery a month ago in Peking University Third Hospital.

"We used to use titanium mesh stuffed with crushed bones from the patient or other bodies to replace the spines. However, this method was far from ideal, because if the titanium mesh changed position, the patient would be paralyzed, and the column-shaped mesh didn't match the S-shaped biological curve of human beings," said Liu, head of the 3D printing artificial vertebral body research team, which is recognized by the China Food and Drug Administration.

The 3D printing technology has enabled surgeons to custom-make replacements for spine. The flexible metal spine is said to readily connect to other bones and form a stable link, supporting the body. With it in place, a patient can move freely soon after the operation, and can live and work like a normal person, according to Liu.

Welcome to the fascinating world of 3D printing. Theoretically, a 3D printer can 'print' or create anything drawn on paper into a three-dimensional object.

The technology is formally called additive layer manufacturing by researchers and scientists. In the past few years, 3D printing has surprised many by creating things from clothing to homes to machine parts to even drones.

Chuck Hull, an inventor from the United States, developed solid imaging back in 1980s. The process is different from traditional manufacturing. The latter is based on the removal of material by cutting and drilling. But 3D printing creates objects by consistently laying down materials, such as wax, metal and polyurethane, based on virtual blueprints from computer-aided designs.

"The main advantages of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing include reduced manufacturing cost, shorter production and delivery times, and the ability to produce complex shapes that are difficult to create using traditional methods," said Donald Godfrey, engineering fellow at Honeywell Aerospace.

According to Godfrey, in terms of shorter turnaround times, 3D printing technology can help shave months off delivery schedules. Some products can even be produced in less than a day, which will have a major, positive impact on customers.

"In the early stage of its development, 3D printing could only produce low-intensity goods, so it was called Rapid Prototyping Manufacturing. In 1991, Yan Yongnian, a professor at Tsinghua University, invited professor Jack Keverian from the US to introduce 3D printing technology to China. Since then, China embarked on the journey of researching and developing 3D printing," said Lin Feng, a professor at the university's mechanical and engineering department.

According to Lin, the Tsinghua University team designed a 3D printer in early 1990s and the first product of the printer was a car model made from paper.

"We did not start much later than our counterparts globally, and our researchers and experts are striving to catch up in the application of this technology in more areas with a broad selection of materials," said Zeng Xiaoyan, a professor from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

Xu Jun, aerospace engineering and technology leader at Honeywell Technology Solutions China, said, "Through cooperation with our Chinese partners, we've recognized China's efforts in catching up, and to be honest, China is not lagging too much in the practical application of 3D printing."

After nearly two decades of development, China's 3D printing market value has grown to 4.65 billion yuan (around $694 million) in 2014, and may grow by 40 percent annually to reach 20 billion yuan by 2018, a report from Southwest Securities said.

Another report from Wohlers Associates said the global 3D printing industry grew 25.9 percent year-on-year in 2015, with more than 278,000 desktop printers, costing under $5,000 each, sold worldwide last year. The independent consulting firm also estimated the global market size will reach $21.2 billion by 2020.

Experts expect the new technology to potentially find applications even in industries like aerospace, medical, tooling and industrial design in future.

"A distinctive advantage of 3D printing is it can shorten and simplify complicated manufacturing, and this advantage becomes more evident if the product is very complicated," said Zeng from Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

An example is Honeywell's Shanghai facility. It supported numerous prototyping projects for the turbocharger team in 2015, resulting in a 65 percent reduction in schedule on average, which translates into cost savings, said Godfrey of Honeywell Aerospace.

The Honeywell Technology Solutions China's Additive Manufacturing Lab in Shanghai is one of the four 3D printing labs the company operates around the world; the other three are in India, Europe and the US.

"But 3D printing is not suitable for every sector, only for creating unique products with special designs rather than mass production," said Zeng.

Lu Bingheng, head of mechanical and engineering department at Xi'an Jiaotong University, told the Economic Information Daily that 3D printing is reshaping even productivity and social life, and may experience a blowout in coming years.

For, modern manufacturing is marked by mass production and standardization. But it faces increasing challenge to satisfy more individual requirements from clients. The demand for tailor-made products thus makes 3D printing popular, said Lu.

According to Airbus SAS, this innovation could even shape the future of aircraft component manufacturing and design. It represents a new alternative to production processes such as milling, melting, casting and precision forging, producing only 5 percent waste material instead of up to 95 percent from current machining.

In 2015, Honeywell became the first company to produce an aerospace component using the electron beam melting system as part of an experimental design for an existing tube used on the Honeywell HTF7000 jet engine.

Honeywell plans to use 3D printing to produce non-life-critical or non-rotating components. It is currently at a stage of getting regulatory bodies, the industry and customers comfortable with 3D printing, according to Godfrey.

Lin from Tsinghua University said his team is working on developing a 3D printing technology for cell structures. The team started using the technology in the biomedical sector in the early 2000s. In December 2015, it built a model of totipotent stem cell with a survival rate of 95 percent through 3D printing. This development is expected to overcome the problem of cultivating this highly productive but extremely sensitive cell.

"The characteristic of a cell has a lot to do with its shape. If we can imitate the cell and tissue activity in human body, we can research the process of human being and even the process of a disease. Therefore, we can use these research results to select medicines, and even to study the cell of cancer," said Lin.

Patrick Thomas, CEO of Covestro, a supplier of high-tech polymers, views 3D printing as a major opportunity for efficient mass production of complex or individualized parts. But the technology has to clear some hurdles before it can go into more widespread use, he said.

"While over 3,000 materials are available for conventional component manufacturing, only about 30 are available for 3D printing."

Chinese universities and institutions are putting more efforts in 3D printing research and development.

Tsinghua University's team turned their research into real products through cooperation with companies like Beijing Yinhua Laser Rapid Prototypes Making and Mould Technology Co Ltd and Tiertime Technology Co Ltd.

To date, 48.2 percent of the 1,549 Chinese branded industrial 3D printers sold were made by Beijing Tiertime or Beijing Yinhua, according to the latest data from Wohlers Associates.

The Huazhong University of Science and Technology has formed several sector-wise 3D printing R&D teams.

Shi Yusheng, a professor with the university, and his team have sold more than 300 units of their developed 3D facilities and materials to the United Kingdom, Singapore, Brazil and Russia.

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