A hot topic in the Asian manufacturing industries is 3D printing. Many engineers and researchers are fueling speculation about the new capabilities and materials available from 3D printing technology during technical symposiums and seminars.

Printing companies are salivating over the potential market for this technology, and supporters of 3D printing predict that the technology is capable of creating everything. One news article reported that anyone can generate a working machine gun using a 3D printer equipped with standard and CAD software. Market research firms estimate a large market size for companies that create the printed objects, as well as printer manufacturers and ink suppliers. Accordingly, many companies are scrambling to evaluate and plan any product rollout in this market. Inkjet equipment manufacturers are leading the charge and have a few commercial machines in their pipelines. Several venture companies opened a few 3D printing service centers in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China, and even more companies are planning to throw their hat in the ring. Many people are excited with the concept of 3D printing.

But there are many skeptics with the 3D printing concept. A couple of weeks ago, Terry Gou, the president of Hon Hai Precision, blasted 3D printing, calling it a “gimmick”. He explained that he was not optimistic about the future of this printing technology, arguing it was unsuitable for mass production and did not have any real commercial value based on his 30 years of experience.

Gou’s comments could be very true for volume production, especially for consumer electronics. Is this true for prototype models? Unfortunately, I cannot be optimistic about 3D printing technology either for several reasons. First, the materials for 3D printing are very different from materials used in mass production, and the physical performances, especially electronic and optical properties of the devices could be different from designed values. Second, the dimensional accuracies are less than current mechanical or chemical processes prepared for prototype models. Accordingly, the prototype devices produced by 3D printing have very small values for functional tests, other than “take a look” to have an image of the product. But state of the art computer graphics provide 3D product images very easily and clearly.

I am probably too pessimistic about the future of 3D printing. Mock-up models produced by 3D printing could have value for displays and demonstrations of new products prior to mass production – especially consumer goods such as children’s toys. The present day manufacturer is not going out on a limb and retooling their factories to accommodate a 3D printing process. There is too much liability with consumer products that fall short of safety and reliability functions.

Dominique K. Numakura, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

DKN Research, www.dknresearchllc.com


1. Fujitsu -- Has started a health monitoring project of senior citizens and patients in smart houses using various sensor devices.

2. DNP -- Has developed a new electrode film by chemical etching of thin copper layer on PET film for touchscreen applications.

3. Omron -- Has demonstrated new sensor devices made by MEMS manufacturing technologies, a noncontact thermometer and carbon dioxide sensor.

4. AIST (Major technical institute in Japan) -- Has developed a new small size viscosity sensor for liquids using MEMS technologies.

5. Toray (organic material supplier) -- Has decided to join SEMATEC, R&D consortium of semiconductor technologies in New York to upgrade the 3D packaging technologies.

6. Fujitsu -- Has started a cultivation test of low potassium vegetables utilizing clean rooms of closed semiconductor manufacturing process.

7. DNP -- Has completed the construction of DNP Fine Chemical Utsunomiya. The new plant will produce functional chemicals for electronics materials and medicines.

8. Kyoto University (Japan) -- Has discovered a new photo emission mechanisms of carbon nano-tube with an extremely high efficiency.

9. Konica Minolta -- Has been developing a new roll-to-roll manufacturing process for flexible organic light source sheets.

10. Hibino (display manufacturer)-- Has installed the largest LED display panel at Shibuya Station in Tokyo.


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