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3-D PRINTER

The age of 3-D printers has arrived, for better and worse

by Hiroko Nakata

Staff Writer

The 3-D printer boom in the United States is spreading to Japan as prices decline, but some fear the devices could break the mold, jobwise.

Electronics and automobile makers were the first here to start using 3-D printers to make product prototypes, but the trend is spreading to industries ranging from home builders to jewelers, toy companies and medical companies interested in crafting replacement organs.

Meanwhile, Japan’s venerable mold-making industry, respected worldwide for its technique and precision, fears the state-of-the-art machines will some day replace them.

Here are some questions and answers on 3-D printers:

How do 3-D printers work and will Japanese companies make them?

The printers render designs of objects drafted by CAD/CAM software not via ink, but by extruding plastic or metal on multiple axes so that a three-dimensional object is formed.

There are several types, but the most popular is one that renders objects by squeezing out heated resin in layers.

Some produce objects by sintering metallic powders multiple times. The metallurgical process entails using pressure and heat to create a bonded mass of metal particles.

Another sintering process uses plaster powders, which allows ink to be sprayed on the object’s surface.

The 3-D printer market is dominated by U.S.-based companies 3D Systems Corp. and Stratasys, but Japan is trying to get on board. A government panel has reportedly proposed budgeting for future development of a domestic 3-D printer industry.

Why have 3-D printers gained so much attention recently?

The trend took off when former Wired magazine editor-in-chief and author Chris Anderson published “Makers” in October 2012 in the U.S. Anderson wrote that anyone could become “a maker” with today’s digital tools and asserted the burgeoning movement in personal fabrication would trigger “the third industrial revolution.”

Attention grew further in May this year after someone “printed” out a functioning pistol made almost entirely of plastic.

When the printers first hit the market about two decades ago, they were big, expensive and limited to making prototypes of products in the aviation, automobile and other heavy industries.

As improvements emerged and CAD/CAM software prices dropped, the printers became more geared toward personal use. Software that once cost at least ¥1 million can now be had for thousands of yen, or for free.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address earlier this year praised the fields emerging from 3-D printing.

Wohlers Associates, which analyzes the 3-D printing industry, forecast that the market, including all products and services worldwide, will amount to $10.8 billion by 2021, compared with about $2.204 billion in 2012.

Are Japanese entrepreneurs looking into 3-D printers?

An increasing number of young entrepreneurs are using 3-D printers to make trial products.

Reasonably priced machines and software make it possible to generate prototypes quickly and cheaply, sometimes in a few hours. But the prototypes aren’t as sophisticated as those made with conventional metallic molds, which are costly and require weeks to produce.

To support the trend toward personal fabrication, “business incubators” have begun giving would-be entrepreneurs a chance to rent 3-D printers, computerized numerically controlled (CNC) machines and laser cutters at low cost.

Samurai Incubate Inc. and Goto Human-Ecology Design Firm Co. began providing 3-D printers and other machine tools for free at MONO, an open-to-all machine shop in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

And now that electronics retailers have gotten into the act, a wider segment of the public is embracing them for personal use.

In July, Bic Camera Inc. started selling 3-D printers for ¥141,800. The CellP 3-D unit made by Japanese robot maker Robotma.com is 40 cm wide, 40 cm deep and 42 cm high and must be assembled by the buyer. But pre-assembled versions can be purchased for ¥176,800.

Rival retailer Yamada Denki Co. also began selling a printer this month made by 3D Systems of the U.S. The Cube is priced at ¥160,000, with the higher-end CubeX starting from ¥398,000.

A Bic Camera official who declined to be named said customers checking out the 3-D printers are often surprised to learn they are finally becoming affordable.

Are the printers affecting the production process at large manufacturers?

On the industrial front, Panasonic Corp. said Thursday it is starting to use 3-D printers to produce trial products not only for appliances but also digital gadgets, to save time and development costs. It also said it has started creating metallic molds for some of its products.

Group unit Eco Solutions Co. plans to use 3-D printers for half of the metallic molds it can produce, with the goal of reducing production costs by 30 percent.

The forecast for the 3-D printer market is sanguine.

The size of the domestic market for 3-D printers, which was estimated at 1,620 units worth ¥9.3 billion in 2012, is expected to reach 16,000 units worth ¥15.5 billion in 2016 because printers for personal use costing below ¥1 million are likely to sell as well as they do overseas, according to research firm Seed Planning.

Would mold-making jobs be threatened if manufacturers create all of their metallic molds with 3-D printers?

Mold makers fear they may lose contracts with big manufacturers like Panasonic.

The Japan Die and Mold Industry Association has been keeping a wary eye on professional-use 3-D printers and is studying whether mold makers themselves should purchase them to stay competitive.

Only a limited number of mold makers at present use 3-D printers because they are still expensive and limited in the size of the molds that can be created.

The initial cost for a German-made 3-D printer exceeds ¥100 million and costs ¥3 million a month to operate. And the metal powder used to create the molds costs some ¥47,000 per kilogram, said Sakae Nakazato, director at the Tokyo-based Japan Die and Mold Industry Association.

“Many mold makers are taking a wait-and-see stance because the industrial printers are far from (having widespread) practical use,” given the cost performance, Nakazato said.

Industry experts said it will take more time for professional-use 3-D printers to drop in price. Also, when it comes to exquisite molds and those requiring a great deal of strength, 3-D printers sometimes fall short, they said.

Can 3-D printers be used for sinister purposes?

Yes. They could be used, for example, to create molds for firearms, the designs for which are already on the Internet.

The potential of using the machines to make illegal weapons has raised controversy in the United States and elsewhere.

A group successfully fired the world’s first printed gun at a firing range south of Austin, Texas, it was reported in May. It was made entirely from plastic except for the metal firing pin.

The action alarmed anti-gun campaigners.

The same report alerted readers to the fact that 3-D printing technology has already been used by criminal elements to make card readers — “skimmers” surreptitiously inserted into ATMs to steal bank and credit card numbers to make counterfeit cards or steal money electronically over the Internet.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp