China pins hopes on 3-D printing to boost its car, aerospace industries

Technology expected to help China's carmaking and aerospace industries add value to their production chains, especially if its cost falls

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 June, 2013, 3:29am

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, enables the creation and manufacture of three-dimensional objects of almost any shape without machining, moulding or assembly.

The power of the technology is expected to help the mainland's manufacturers make higher-end goods. Still, there are limits to its practical application.

The technology enables a product to be made using an additive process - successive layers of material are laid down with differing shapes.

"It can revolutionise traditional manufacturing," said Shi Yusheng, a professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, adding that one of its "magic" qualities was that it allowed for more creativity and innovation, as well as the realisation of abstract designs.

A virtual blueprint can be turned into a real object by printing it layer by layer, and complex, custom-made products can be easily produced.

"The technology helps industry do research and development and reduce costs," Shi said.

In the automotive and aerospace industries, the use of 3-D printing would enable the manufacture of products with higher efficiency, said Helmut Magg, a sales manager of ExOne, a Pennsylvania-based firm that makes and sells 3-D printers. "You can skip a lot of steps in the traditional manufacturing process by using 3-D printing," he said.

China has about 20 years of 3-D printing history. The technology was developed in foreign countries in the early 1980s. It hit the headlines when United States President Barack Obama mentioned it in his State of the Union address in February.

Beijing, which has set its sights on elevating China's low-cost manufacturing to high-quality production, has backed the use of 3-D printing.

Luo Jun, the secretary-general of the China 3D Printing Technology Industrial Alliance, said 10 3-D printing technology innovation centres would be built in 10 cities at a cost of 20 million yuan (HK$25.3 million).

Revenue from 3-D printing in China last year reached 1 billion yuan, Luo said, adding that it could reach 10 billion yuan within three to four years, which would make it the largest user of the technology in the world.

According to Colorado-based research firm Wohlers Associates, global sales of additive manufacturing products and services in the 3-D printing market last year rose 28.6 per cent year on year to US$2.2 billion, of which China accounted for 8.7 per cent and the United States 38 per cent.

In terms of technology, China was not second to the US or any European country, Shi said. "However, China lags behind in terms of functionality and reliability of equipment."

Lian Ning, a general manager at Nanjing Zijin-Lead Electronics, said manufacturing products by 3-D printing required less material but that high material prices deterred companies from employing the technology.

"Prices of imported materials are more than double those in China," Lian said, adding that domestic material producers were unwilling to develop new materials because consumption was limited.

The company sells mid-priced 3-D printers that cost about 150,000 yuan which are used by carmakers and the aerospace industry.

Lian said smaller companies might not be able to afford 3-D printers.

"As production of 3-D printers is limited, we cannot reduce costs through mass production," he said.

Government support for the 3-D printing industry would make the printers more popular "and when more companies can afford 3-D printers, we can reduce prices".