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'3D printing is booming'

By Ma Si and Cheng Yu | China Daily | Updated: 2017-08-21 07:03

'3D printing is booming'

Three visitors admire a 3D printer at the Additive Manufacturing Conference of China 2017 on July 30 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. SHI JIANXUE / FOR CHINA DAILY

China's many industries, fields of human endeavor utilize a well-developed ecosystem to embrace the new technology

Medical, automotive, machinery, consumer electronics, aviation, toys, home decor, even art ... it appears there is not an industry, sector or field of human endeavor in China that has not been touched by the revolutionary three-dimensional or 3D printing technology yet.

Barring the second child that government policy allows married couples to have now, everything else can be 3D-printed-or so it seems.

The 3D printing technology has helped create things like clothing, houses, sculpture, tumor models, machine parts, even drones.

Take for instance the patient who underwent a brain surgery in Beijing recently.

The operation was unconventional, almost science fiction-like, to say the least. Yet, it was real. And successful.

At the end of it all, his brain was covered with ReDura, a 3D-printed membrane, by experts at Peking University Third Hospital.

ReDura is a product of Medprin Regenerative Medical Technologies Co Ltd, a Guangzhou-based 3D-bioprinting company.

Yuan Yuyu, chairman of Medprin, said: "Brain surgery incisions used to be covered with membrane made up of animal-sourced materials, which exposes patients to risks of disease transmission.

"It also takes a long time for these animal tissues to be fully integrated into patients' own tissues, which prolongs suffering," he said.

ReDura, which is created using 3D printing machines, is made up of biodegradable material. (Experts use heavy-duty technical terms to explain that the membrane's "custom-made biomimetic structure" resembles that of the "microstructure of the native dural matrix", which provides an "appropriate scaffold" for the "proliferation of cells" to "rapidly repair the defective area".)

Suffice to say it's magical, amazing and wonderful enough to be a worthy replacement for the previous versions of the membrane.

No wonder, ReDura has received the approval of the China Food and Drug Administration and gained acceptance in the European Union.

ReDura is just the tip of the 3D printing iceberg.

Chinese companies have made rapid advances in 3D printing technology, whose formal name is additive layer manufacturing.

Progress spans both fundamental research and manufacturing techniques. Different from traditional manufacturing, which is based on the removal of material by cutting and drilling, 3D printing creates objects by consistently laying down materials, such as wax, metal and polyurethane, based on virtual blueprints from computer-aided designs.

One impressive example in the aviation sector is the C919, China's first large passenger jetliner, which has 3D-printed components that help reduce its weight and shorten the delivery schedule. The big plane made its maiden flight earlier this year.

Wang Peng, secretary-general of the Additive Manufacturing Alliance of China or AMAC, said after years of development, 3D printing is entering a new phase in China, from an innovative concept to something quite helpful in upgrading manufacturing plants, hospitals and even classrooms.

"3D printing is booming. We have cultivated a relatively good industrial system, with manufacturing techniques close to, or on a par with, leading foreign countries. The sector is leaping from laboratory research into industrial applications," Wang said.

Last year, the output value of China's 3D printing industry hit nearly 8 billion yuan ($1.12 billion), up 87.5 percent year-on-year, highlighting the strong momentum, AMAC data show.

Beijing, Shaanxi, Guangdong, Hubei and Shanghai have formed a 3D industry chain in terms of geography, covering product design, material, key components, equipment and industries applications. Shaanxi province has applied for over 1,000 3D printing-related patents.

"The technology represents the future direction of intelligent manufacturing as it combines the advantages of large-scale production with personalized manufacturing. It is highly efficient and cost-effective," said Zuo Shiquan, a manufacturing expert at the Beijing-based China Center for Information Industry Development, a research institute affiliated to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology or MIIT.

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.

The MIIT is drafting a 2017-20 plan to accelerate the development of 3D printing. It established the National Innovation Center by forging extensive partnerships between universities and companies. The idea is to help address technological bottlenecks that impede commercial applications of 3D printing.

Not surprisingly, companies such as Shining 3D Tech Co Ltd, a Hangzhou-based 3D-printing specialist, are optimistic about the sector.

Shining has already provided 3D printing and scanning services to over 10,000 customers worldwide. Its clients include global corporate icons such as Intel Corp, Robert Bosch GmbH and Adidas.

Huang Xianqing, senior vice-president of Shining 3D, said 3D printing can meet consumers' growing demand for environmentally friendly and personalized products.

The company has successfully applied its 3D printing techniques to manufacture exhaust pipes for Ford cars. Different from traditional exhaust pipes whose simple design leads to bad air flow and huge power loss, the company's 3D-printed pipes weigh 67 percent less. They can also help vehicles change airflow speed of the car engine, which saves energy.

Earlier this year, Shining partnered with US tech company Hewlett-Packard Inc to offer better 3D printing services. The two sides will deploy HP 3D printing hardware and software in 50 locations across China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Nanjing.

It's not just high-tech or top-end segments that are embracing 3D printing. In Beijing's suburban Huairou district, Chinese engineers in an economic and development park are scrambling to make 3D printers that can churn out household items.

The engineers are employed by about 300 companies in the zone, among which is Beijing Tiertime Technology Co Ltd, China's first 3D printer exporter.

Tiertime Tech sells tens of thousands of 3D printers to more than 40 countries every year. Its 150-plus staff print products ranging from toys and cartoon figures to mobile phone shells and home decor.

Luo Jun, secretary of the World 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance, said China needs to step up research and development on the "ink" for 3D printers (that is, material with stable qualities).

"Nickel-based alloy, cobalt chromium alloy and engineering plastics resistant to high temperature and high strength haven't been mass-produced. Some materials used for additive manufacturing are mostly imported items. This could restrict applications of 3D printing," Luo said.

'3D printing is booming'

'3D printing is booming'

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