Table Speech

Will 3-D Printers Change Manufacturing in Japan?

July 13, 2016

Mr. Seiji Hayano
President, Aspect Inc.

 Let me explain the technology of 3-D printing with its applications. The first form of manufacturing for mankind was knapping to make stone tools like knives and arrowheads. Today machine centers are used for such cutting work classified as “subtractive processing.” The mass production era of the 17th century witnessed a new manufacturing method of “deformation processing” including injection molding and press forming. 3-D printing is the hard-won third manufacturing method of “additive processing.” It dates back to 1980 when Dr. Hideo Kodama published his research on using photo curable resin built up in layers to create a solid ‘printed’ object based on 3-D CAD data. In Japan, this technology was first called stereo lithography in the mid-1980s, followed by layer manufacturing and today, it is called Additive Manufacturing (AM). Likewise, ASTM International reached agreement in 2009 to use Additive Manufacturing as the standard terminology worldwide and defined it as “the process of joining materials to make objects from 3-D model data, usually layer upon layer.” President Obama spoke about “3-D printing” in his 2013 State of the Union Speech and the term gained rapid popularity.

 The AM technology is classified into seven types: Vat Photopolymerization, Sheet Lamination, Binder Jetting, Material Extrusion, Material Jetting, Powder Bed Fusion, and Directed Energy Deposition. 3-D printers you are familiar with are Material Extrusion type. Depending on the materials used, including powdered or liquid resin and powdered metal, there are in total 14 different technologies. Our company undertakes the development, sales and maintenance of Powder Bed Fusion Platforms that use laser beam to melt and fuse powdered resin or metal. One unit costs at least 50 million yen, while the price of high spec units can reach 300 million yen.

 AM technologies have traditionally been used for Rapid Prototyping before mass production methods are employed. Today, there are many diversified applications for different industries, ranging from aerospace, architecture, automotive, defense, medical replacements, food, jewelry, beauty care, clothing, musical instruments to interior design. GE installed 400 units of 3-D printers in their new plant to manufacture fuel nozzles and parts for Boeing 747 and Airbus A320neo aircrafts. In the medical field, customized 3-D printed hearing aid shells have attracted over 10 million uses in Europe alone, as many companies entered the market and consequently prices have dropped to less than a quarter. 3-D printed orthodontic aligners are currently used by over 20 million patients. Many dentists across the USA have introduced the Invisalign System, which costs about 8 million yen, to produce clear removable aligners based on the data acquired by digital scanning of the patients’ teeth.

 Let me highlight some trends in AM technologies. Firstly, we now have low-priced Material Extrusion type 3-D printers that cost less than 500,000 yen. There are more than 300 manufacturers around the world that provide over 600 different models of printers for individual users. Not a few manufacturers suffer from the inevitable price war. Another trend is the expansion of 3-D metal printing technologies, initiated by the Fraunhofer Institution in Germany. Wider variety of metals can be used now and its market scale and equipment sales are growing. We also witness the advancement to super engineering plastics with high strength and heat resistance to allow application in the space industry. I must say the latest trend is the end of the 3-D printer boom. The boom started around 2013 when the USA quantitative easing measures ended and funds from Brazil and India flowed back to instigate an economic bubble. The number of 3-D printer manufacturers increased with the installation of numerous machines supported by crowd-funding. 3D Systems Corporation and Stratasys Ltd. are the two leading manufacturers in the USA which had invested enormously in Mergers & Acquisitions. After the economic bubble burst, their stock prices plunged and they have come to suffer from tight finances.

 High-end 3-D printers, on the other hand, enjoy stable business growth thanks to technological advancement and the development of new materials. Corporate AM equipment sales expanded even after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. It took about 20 years for the AM market size (including equipment, materials, maintenance and service bureau) to reach 100 billion yen. It is estimated the market will further expand to 2.65 trillion yen by 2020. If we add various applications and hearing aid shells, the market size already totals 3.2 trillion yen this year. It is surely a promising market.

Before I close my speech I must clarify one point. In Japan, there is an extensive media coverage claiming that 3-D printers are capable of producing anything easily, quickly and at low cost and therefore, they will transform the traditional mode of production. Let me emphasize that this is a downright lie. Traditional manufacturing technologies like injection molding are unique and important and therefore, 3-D printers cannot replace them. What 3-D printers can do, however, is to create something new that can lead to new applications and eventually form new culture. They serve to nurture new businesses and technologies.