As prices drop, 3-D printers rise in popularity

by Satoshi Matsuo

Kyodo

As 3-D printers become more common and prices drop, a number of Japanese firms are using the technology to fabricate 3-D models based on photographs or drawings provided by customers.

Among them is 3D Remind LLC, a venture business established in the city of Osaka last August. Jiro Hiasa, a former sales representative for a real estate firm, and a few others founded the company to engage in “work that strengthens the bond of families,” he said.

A 3-D printer can make a solid, three-dimensional object of virtually any shape from a digital model.

One of 3D Remind’s recent jobs involved fabricating a plaster figure of a giraffe based on a drawing by a 4-year-old girl whose father “wanted to display the drawing as a good-looking object.”

Popular with the company’s customers are models of people or pets based on photos or drawings. Because 3D Remind outsources most of the process to cut costs, a small figure can be made for ¥18,000.

Orders from wedding centers and pet shops are on the rise, Hiasa said.

Nakashima Medical Co., a maker of medical devices in the city of Okayama, purchased a large 3-D printer for ¥100 million in 2005 to produce artificial joints from titanium, a preferred material because it doesn’t cause allergic reactions to humans.

Nakashima Medical has started using the machine to make artificial joints matching the skeletal structure of each patient, a task that can’t be achieved through the conventional method of producing them based on molds.

In the United States and Europe, plastic guns have been made with 3-D printers now that digital data for them are readily available. An American firearms maker has even produced a metal gun based on the specifications of a model used by the military.

Worried by the development, the U.S. Congress decided in December to extend a law controlling plastic guns for 10 years.

The use of 3-D printers to produce weapons could become a problem in Japan as well.

The first working 3-D printer in the world was developed by the U.S. company 3D Systems Corp.

The global market for 3-D printers is currently led by 3D Systems and another U.S. firm, Stratasys Ltd.

Initially, 3-D printers were huge machines priced at more than ¥100 million each. But prices have fallen sharply as hundreds of companies have entered the market since 2009, when patents held by Stratasys expired on an invention to extrude melted resin through a nozzle for 3-D printing.

Based on the technology, various 3-D printers have been developed, including some priced at the ¥100,000 level.

Among Japanese ventures, Smile Link based in Ota Ward, Tokyo, launched a 3-D printer dubbed the DS.1000 in December for ¥183,750 for personal use. It was jointly developed with Yokohama-based Division Engineering Co.

Mariko Obayashi, president of Smile Link, said the first production of 50 units sold out immediately. She quoted a proverb: “Start small, let it grow.”

The global market for 3-D printers, including related services, is expected to grow from $2.2 billion in 2012 to $10.8 billion by 2021, largely on strong sales of machines for personal use, a U.S. business consulting firm said.