3D printing: In good shape

By: | Published: June 21, 2015 12:04 AM

With its massive potential for applications in endless areas, 3D technology has seen fast-paced growth in almost all corners of the globe since its advent. India, too, is not far behind

AFTER SUCCESSFULLY ‘emailing’ a wrench—when International Space Station (ISS) commander Barry Wilmore needed a ratcheting socket tool recently, a 3D printer aboard the ISS made it available to him within a few hours (earlier, it would take several weeks, at times even months, for a replacement to arrive)—Nasa is now offering a $2.25-million prize for designing and building a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration, including a journey to Mars.

Back on earth, a five-year-old US kid—born with an extremely rare condition called Symbrachydactyly, a congenital abnormality characterised by limb anomalies—received a ‘cheaper’ prosthetic hand created using 3D printing technology. Far away in Asia, a highly innovative Shanghai-based construction firm, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, recently used a 150-m-long printer to create a five-storey building entirely out of recycled construction waste (the makers proudly call it “the world’s tallest 3D-printed building”).

From ‘body parts’ to automobiles and earphones to jet engines, the 3D printing market has made significant advances in developed countries like the US in recent times. With its massive potential for applications in endless areas, the technology has seen fast-paced growth in almost all corners of the globe since its advent. Often dismissed as a tool for the use of home-based ‘makers’ (users of 3D printing are referred to as ‘makers’ in popular parlance) of toys and trinkets, the technology is now gaining momentum in large-scale industry as well. Already, it has moved well beyond prototyping.

India, too, is not far behind and is expected to witness strong growth in the near future. As per a report by market research firm 6W Research, the 3D printer market in India is expected to reach $79 million by 2021. With the expiry of key patents, low costs of production, increasing awareness and penetration, and advancements in material research, the 3D printer market is expected to witness tremendous growth in the coming years, the report says.

“The technology is transforming itself with its varied applications and is becoming an integral part of the manufacturing business, as organisations strive to reduce time to market. We see the 3D printing technology going mainstream soon and it will be expanding to many small and medium businesses in the near future,” says Rajiv Bajaj, general manager, India, Stratasys, the world’s largest 3D printing company.

Stratasys recently set up its India operations, as it looks to tap into the growing manufacturing activity in India “led by the Narendra Modi government’s Make-in-India campaign”. In April, the US-based company inaugurated its first 3D ‘printing experience centre’ in Bengaluru, which showcases its entire range of professional 3D printers. The company has been selling its printers in India through distributors for the past 10 years, but it decided to have a direct presence in the country after seeing over 60% year-on-year growth in the India business.

“Through a more local market outreach, we look forward to further introducing 3D printing technology to the community, as it has the potential to empower business growth and product refinement. It is also important that we be closer to our customers, so that we can offer our support and services as efficiently as possible,” explains Bajaj, spelling out the reasons behind setting up shop in India.

In India, the 3D printer market is one of the emerging ones, where demand is primarily exhibited from tier-I cities.

“India accounts for major potential growth for domestic manufacturers, local assemblers and distributors due to an increasing use of rapid prototyping and 3D modelling across various industry sectors. Further, the ‘Make in India’ campaign, which started in 2014, is anticipated to drive the future growth of the market,” adds the 6W Research report.

The next big thing

Remarkably, 3D printing allows actual objects to be designed and created (or ‘printed’) surprisingly quickly with a computer connected to a printer-like device, using special material (often plastic, but increasingly almost anything) like ‘ink’ and ‘paper’. With the costs of the machinery nearing mass-market levels, 3D printing is poised to take off, blurring the distinction between digital and physical realms, democratising manufacturing and turning large chunks of the global economy upside down.

India primarily imports 3D printers from China, the US and Germany. However, with government initiatives to boost domestic manufacturing, many local players are emerging and more are expected to emerge in the near future.

Greater Noida-based 3DPrintronics was founded in 2013 with the idea of bringing 3D printing revolution to India.

The company was established at a time when, let alone a 3D printer, even requisite components were not available in India. Co-founder Vishesh Shishodia, while working on a 3D printer assembly for his personal use, realised that there were no places in India where components could be sourced from. Thus, he started his company with an aim to provide components, DIY 3D printer kits, filaments and expertise all at one place.

“Since its inception, 3DPrintronics has carved a niche for itself in the Indian 3D printing market. Our open-source Prusa i3 DIY kits are extremely popular among hobbyists, and school and college students for assembling their own 3D printers. In late 2014, we started manufacturing the ‘OrdBot Hadron’, which is a low-cost, highly-reliable 3D printer suitable for hobbyists and professionals alike,” says Shishodia.

The biggest advantage of 3D printing is that there is no limitation on creating anything. Kanika Chahal, business head of Next2Future, a 3D printing studio in Delhi’s Dwarka area, says, “This technology is an additive method where printing is done layer by layer. So basically, there is no limitation and anything can be customised unlike the conventional method where designers have to take care of a lot of parameters, which could prove to be a hurdle during casting, moulding, etc.”

While the West has been quick to 3D-print food items like cheeseburgers and chocolates, this technology is only now entering the east, with China and India dabbling in it. Last year, students of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US gained fame for building a 3D ice-cream printer. Nasa, too, funded such a project in 2014 involving 3D-printed pizzas for astronauts. The project was pioneered by Indian-origin engineer Anjan Contractor, who used crust, cheese and protein as raw material.

In August last year, students of Manipal Institute of Technology in India launched “India’s first 3D chocolate printer”. Named Chocobot, the 3D chocolate printer makes custom-shaped chocolates and icing. It is like a regular 3D printer with the same design software, but produces chocolates in different shapes and sizes. It takes about 40 minutes to print a plate of chocolates. Chocobot is available at less than R60,000 and is targeting foodies, bakers and local cake shops as its main audience.

The promise of these machines isn’t just mass production, but also an entirely different type of deliciousness. The printers can render ingredients like chocolate and pasta in shapes and textures that have previously been impossible to create.

New horizons

As per the 6W Research report, in India’s 3D printer market, automotive applications account for a majority of the revenue share. “Educational and medical applications are also witnessing higher growth. Other niche applications include arts and crafts, interior decoration, fashion accessories, footwear and customised footwear design, jewellery design, animation and gaming, and furniture and modelling,” the report adds.

While 3D printing has been around in India for some time now (used chiefly in areas of manufacturing and construction), it is now expanding to the personal space as well. One such craze is ‘3D selfies’. It is basically about creating one’s smaller 3D model or figurine. In the past six months, Next2Future has worked on over 100 3D figurines. “The demand for 3D figurines is growing exponentially every month,” adds Chahal of Next2Future.

Pranav Prakash, co-founder of New Delhi-based 3D-printing start-up Solidry, agrees, “A ‘3D selfie’ is a full-colour, miniature sandstone print of yours. A product manufactured just for you. This level of personalisation was a luxury that only kings and noblemen could afford earlier. Now, everyone can have it.”

3D printing empowers anyone with a 3D model to print a design in a wide range of materials—industrial, personal or medical grade. Its unique manufacturing process causes less wastage and can create complex shapes, opening the door to endless possibilities in the field of product design.

“In the personal consumer space, wearables, healthcare and gifting sectors are expected to be largely impacted by 3D printing. Products like bicycle and camera accessories are popular among hobbyists, while things like customised keychains are quite popular for gifting purposes,” adds Prakash.

Fast forward

The 3D printing ecosystem can be split into four parts—modelling, scanning, printing and applications. While India has a skilled pool of 3D modellers, 3D scanning requires additional hardware. “The best scanners are manufactured outside India and need to be imported, which results in their high prices. This is partially true for 3D printers as well. While there are a few dozen manufacturers of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)-type 3D printers (which print in plastic, wood, etc), there are no major manufacturers of Selective Layer Sintering (SLS) (powder-based) and Stereolithography (SLA) (liquid-based) 3D printers,” says Prakash of Solidry.

Adds Aakash of Jaipur-based Aha3D Innovations, “Awareness and availability of trained manpower are today’s biggest hindrances to the adoption of this technology. But they are being addressed in a major way collectively by the industry. We hope the next six months are going to witness a huge shift in this scenario.” Founded in 2010, Aha3D specialises in industrial 3D printers. Its machines have found takers in many R&D organisations—both government and private—across India.

As per Chahal of Next2Future, the only challenge for 3D technology in India is the price. “India is a price-conscious market. People are not willing to pay for the quality and customisation they can get from 3D technology when they have conventional methods of creating the same stuff,” she says.

Another challenge is to educate people about current 3D printing technology, says Shishodia of 3DPrintronics. “People have a misconception that they can print anything and everything with 3D printers. We have had a few clients buying 3D printers only to realise that they do not know what to do with them,” he says.

For the rest of the 3D printing world, however, sky is the limit.

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