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Local 3-D printing pioneers make it easy for all to join in

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

On Dec. 22, a dozen people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, gathered at a cafe called FabCafe in Tokyo’s Shibuya district with a common purpose: to toy with a range of digital tools, including 3-D printers, 3-D CAD (computer aided design) software, a laser-cutting machine and a full-body 3-D scanner — and to create a collective artwork.

The “navigator” for the hobbyist event — organized jointly by FabCafe operator Loftwork and K’s Design Lab, which operates a 3-D printer showroom directly above FabCafe — was designer Kota Nezu. Nezu, a former designer for Toyota Motor Corp. who now heads his own design firm znug design, proposed that each of the participants that day create their own small object. To do that, some participants posed in front of a full-body scanner to create a 3-D image of themselves, while others manipulated CAD software to give form to whatever ideas for objects they had conceived. The data would then be sent to 3-D printers in the showroom for outputting. Finally, the printed objects, each about 2 cm high, would be perched on top of plastic cogs, which would be made with a laser cutter.

Given a blank piece of paper and a set of color pens to work with, Maki Murakami, 33, seemed at a loss at first. When you are not particularly art-inclined and are suddenly given freedom to draw “anything,” it’s perhaps only natural to feel that way. Soon afterward, though, she was struck with an idea, and started drawing what looked like a simplified version of a Ferris’ wheel, which she then managed to turn into a 3-D image using a modeling software called FreeForm. After that, a staffer wearing a FabCafe T-shirt copied her design to a USB memory-stick to transfer the data to a 3-D printer the size of a small fridge. Then — whoa! — in about half an hour, a red plastic object in the shape of Murakami’s Ferris wheel, popped out.

“It’s amazing to see my idea take on an actual shape,” Murakami, who works as a fashion model, commented. “I drew something for the first time in a long time. I even find the machine (3-D printer) adorable.”

In fact, a lot of people find 3-D printers “adorable” these days. Not a day goes by without news of 3-D printers purporting to make everything from shoes to bikinis to even guns, while the types of materials available for such printers are diversifying from plastics to glass, steel, bronze and even gold.

What has driven the boom in 3-D printing, as well as related products and services — whose global market size is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2015, according to the 2012 Wohlers Report — is the falling prices, experts say. “Three-dimensional printers have been around since the 1990s, but the problem is that they don’t work without 3-D CAD software,” explained Takeshi Yoshida, assistant general manager for the modeling solutions department of Marubeni Information Systems Co., which imports and distributes 3-D printers made by the U.S. giant Stratasys. He was at a recent industry forum on “additive manufacturing” — another term for 3-D printing — in Tokyo. Yoshida’s company was displaying a middle-range model called Mojo, which prints in a thermoplastic known as ABS polymer and is priced at ¥1.28 million.

“The 3-D software used to be very expensive, easily going for ¥10 million. That’s why the use of 3-D printers had long been limited to airline- and space-engineering fields.”

Over time, as the price of software fell, carmakers and home-appliance makers started using 3-D printers to create prototypes to test new designs. And now, with some 3-D CAD software being offered for free, and with the prices of entry-level 3-D printers coming down to as low as several hundred dollars, anyone versed in 3-D CAD skills can get virtually anything they want printed out.

While most 3-D printers on the market are non-Japanese, Fukuoka-based Hotproceed recently marketed an entry-level model, Blade-1, which also prints in ABS polymers, for ¥136,500. Another major low-end model, 3D Touch, is marketed by 3D Systems in the United States and distributed in Japan by Muto Kogyo for ¥350,000.

With the explosion of the 3-D printer market — which the former Wired-magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson says is a key component of the DIY “makers” movement — some firms are offering a range of services to help people give shape to their creativity. At the Maker Faire Tokyo 2012, for example, which was held at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in December, Fukushima-based IT firm Eyes, Japan showed off a printer made out of Lego blocks that output milk-foam patterns on café-lattes. Meanwhile, Incs Inc., a Kawasaki-based company, promoted outputting services for individuals with 3-D data but not a printer. The firm, which specializes in product prototyping for manufacturers, has 32 3-D printers in-house, mostly high-end machines costing ¥100 million each. The firm’s Interculture arm, much like New York-based Shapeways, offers customers a chance to print everything from 3-D figures of anime characters to train models to architectural renderings, according to the firm’s Keiko Asakura.

But many amateur creators in Japan still need a lot of guidance on digital tools, she said, noting that most 3-D data submitted by the customers requires fine-tuning. Asakura blogs extensively on how beginners can refine their 3-D design skills, using such free software as CoCreate.

Still, the idea of selling 3-D CAD data per se, such as selling data for toy dinosaur figures — which Interculture does in collaboration with artist Shigeto Maeda (for ¥500 apiece, at inter-culture-app.jp/Anomalizmo/) — would not have been possible without the growing interest in, if not outright proliferation of, 3-D printers among individual users. Yano Research Institute, a private think-tank, estimates that the Japan market for 3-D printers stood at ¥4.1 billion in fiscal 2011, which it projects to reach ¥7.7 billion in 2015.

Public interest in 3-D printing technologies is definitely on the rise, as seen in the popularity of a series of 3-D printing workshops hosted by FabCafe since it opened in October. Kazue Nakata, a spokeswoman for Loftwork, which operates the Shibuya cafe, says that spaces for the firm’s hands-on seminars are typically gone within a few hours of being announced on the cafe’s website.

At the end of the FabCafe workshop, when all the participants had their objects printed out and their cogs laser-cut from a plastic sheet, Nezu asked everyone to join all the cogs together and then turned one of them. As the cogs started turning so too did the objects placed on top, as if they were dancing on a carousel. Seeing their creation come to life, the participants started tweeting and Facebooking the scene right there.

“Digital tools will become cheaper and easier to use, making them accessible to everyone,” the designer Nezu said after the workshop. “With the bottom-up aspect of grassroots ‘makers,’ I believe Japanese manufacturing will be revived and fully realize its potential.”

Likewise, Yuji Hara, president of K’s Design Lab, which runs the digital equipment showroom, said he was pleased with the level of excitement the workshop galvanized.

“In the future, we want to create opportunities for ordinary people to share their 3-D creations — and even trade them with others,” he said.