While cheaper, more functional 3-D printers are suddenly hitting the headlines, Hong Kong first saw the fruits of the technology more than a decade ago.
Invented by American Chuck Hull in 1984, 3-D printing, or stereolithography, was introduced into Hong Kong by jewellery tycoon Lam Sai-wing a decade later. Through his company 3-D Gold Jewellery, he used the technology to create personalised 3-D portraits for customers and, perhaps most famously, the world's most expensive toilet - a 24-carat commode worth HK$38 million which took pride of place in his Hung Hom store.
Lam died in 2008 and his company has since changed hands and now focuses on selling gold bars to mainland buyers.
But 3-D printing technology has since found a series of new uses, many of which will be explored at the world's first industry conference on 3-D printing, starting in Beijing today. The technology, which gives designers the opportunity to quickly turn their concept into a 3-D model or prototype and allows for rapid design changes, has found uses in footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction, automotive, dental and medical industries and many other fields, said Sidney Wong, an engineer and associate director of Polytechnic University's Institute for Enterprise.
Wong says his institute is promoting 3-D printing in more fields, including innovative design, engineering and physical rehabilitation. "Many US and European companies are making efforts to develop affordable 3-D printers for home desktop use, with some available for just HK$10,000," he said, adding that in the US, it has become fashionable to use it to design and create unique earrings, mobile phone shells and other simple items.
But the emergence of the desktop 3-D printer has raised public safety concerns, not least after the Texas-based organisation Defence Distributed posted blueprints online that could be used to "print" a plastic handgun. Wong said: "There is a need to introduce legal rules to monitor individuals creating harmful firearms from 3-D printers, even though it was just a plastic air pistol … when you add some metal parts into the pistol, it could become a weapon."
The US government has ordered Defence Distributed to remove the blueprints for the pistol from its website. But there is another concern - that the technology will be used to recreate products such as smartphones, MP3 players and computers in violation of copyright laws.
Wong says it will be impossible to create every daily commodity on a 3-D printer as the cost would be much higher than mass produced goods. "First, you should make sure you have collected all the raw material powders you need to feed your home 3-D printer," he said.
Luo Jun, CEO of the Beijing-based Asian Manufacturing Association, said copyright was not a big concern. "It's impossible for every household to turn their home into a factory."
He said: "3-D printing technology will complement our traditional manufacturing industry, which has experienced thousands of years of evolution. I don't believe it could be replaced by the emerging industry."
Many manufacturers of 3-D printers have hailed the technology as heralding a new wave of "bottom-up revolution" or a "third industrial revolution". But Luo said it was still too early to draw such a conclusion. "3-D printing is still a new industry for manufacturers, and many of them so far are unwilling to spend tens of millions to buy a 3-D printing system" for industrial use, he said.
"The new technology could bring real industrial revolution when it is able to combine with our traditional manufacturing industry to establish a new market."
The US government has supported the development of 3-D printing technology over the past three decades, but Beijing has focused only on supporting the technology's use in aviation and aerospace development projects.
Private manufacturers complain that research into the new technology lacks an integrated development environment.
Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, said Beijing should encourage 3-D printing researchers to develop both military and civilian products by, for example, providing funding for manufacturers to create artificial limbs using the technology.