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Enabler of digital transformation

By He Wei in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-15 09:25
A 3D-printed electric vehicle debuts at the China 3D Printing Cultural Museum in Baoshan district, Shanghai. [Photo by Wang Gang/For China Daily]

China makes headway in application and commercialization of 3D printing, paving way for high-quality manufacturing, end-user engagement

From aircraft units, car parts to musical instruments, 3D printing technology is pushing the limits of what can be made out of materials.

While relatively young, this new technique has established itself as one of the most disruptive technologies in decades.

According to consultancy Statista, the global 3D printing industry's output value is projected to reach $23 billion by 2022.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital profile. It is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing that features hollowing out a piece of material with a milling machine.

"'Additive' means laying down successive layers of material until the object is created, and each of these can be regarded as a sliced, horizontal cross-section of the eventual item," said Michael Agam, president of South Asia at Stratasys, an additive manufacturing solution provider based in the United States.

Stratasys provides technologies that are used to create prototype, manufacturing tools and production parts for industries from aerospace, automotive, healthcare to consumer products.

"3D printing enables you to produce complex (functional) shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods," Agam said.

Falling product costs, ease of customization of goods, as well as government incentives are helping China emerge as an Asia leader in additive manufacturing.

China's 3D printing industry is expected to reach $7.68 billion in output value, or one-third of the global market by 2020, according to a forecast by the China Industry Information Institute.

Consultancy IDC estimates the country will pour in $1.9 billion into the sector this year. This makes it the third-largest market behind the US and Western Europe.

Beijing has homed in on a series of policies to advance 3D printers. In the past, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the industry regulator, had released the National 3D Printing Industry Development Plan (2015-2016), which established goals for the sector's innovation and commercialization.

Separately, the ministry came up with a second action plan later in December 2017 to give a further boost. In its latest move, it included the sector in the nation's strategic emerging industries list, heralding massive opportunities for related companies.

But the technology itself has experienced challenges over time. At the early stage, most of the 3D printers were used for rapid prototyping - meaning, mimicking early-stage product mock-ups. Commercialization was not imminent.

"Even though there are amazing innovations nearly every day in the way 3D printers are used in key industries, including automotive, aerospace and medical, we believe that we're still just scratching the surface of the potential for 3D printing as an enabler of digital transformation," said Tim Greene, research director at consultancy IDC.

Industry experts, however, have noticed a gradual paradigm shift. According to Agam, the sector is on the cusp of a transformation from prototyping and design to real-life manufacturing and end-user engagement. This year could herald such changes.

Conglomerates are leading the pack, with GE celebrating the 30,000th additively-manufactured fuel nozzle tip on a 3D printing device at its aviation plant in the US a couple of months ago.

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