Not quite Star Trek, but Stratasys brings 3D printing tech to Malaysia
By A. Asohan June 26, 2013
- 3D printing moves from sci-fi to reality in many industries, emerging trends and uses fuelling the technology
- Stratasys sees Asia as strategic component of its business; and in South-East Asia, sees Malaysia as strategic hub
IT did seem like watching the inner workings of a replicator in the Star Trek universe – a three-dimensional object was on the screen, and gooey stuff was being added layer by layer within this little glass case, completely replicating that 3D image.
Except this was in real life. And out it popped; a real, physical object, just like the one on the screen. Something you can touch.
“3D printing is actually not a new technology, it’s been around for years,” says Vicki Kei, marketing director for 3D printing innovator and leader Stratasys Ltd in Asia Pacific and Japan. “But admittedly, things have really taken off in the last couple of years.”
The most mature users are those companies that are used to CAD (computer-aided design) software, such as those in the automotive industry. But emerging trends have spread the technology beyond its usual shores – enough that in the last couple of years, exploding interest has convinced Stratasys to open up operations in Asia as well.
Kei, who had been in the CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and manufacturing) industry for more than 15 years, only joined Stratasys last year. “This is such an exciting industry to be in at this moment,” she says.
According to some estimates, the 3D printing market is expected to be worth US$6.5 billion by 2019. In February, US President Barack Obama identified ‘additive manufacturing,’ of which 3D printing is a major component, as one of the three top technologies that would be of strategic importance to American manufacturers.
The US Government has set up four ‘hubs’ for the technology, in which Stratasys is present. Across the Atlantic, the UK Government is investing in 3D printing research and development (R&D). Further afield, China has also been discussing setting up 3D printing sites as well, according to Kei.
“This industry is growing, and growing quickly,” she says.
And Stratasys is growing along with it, reporting revenue of US$360 million in 2012. “And we are growing at about 25% globally, with our expectations for this year being between US$425 million and US$430 million,” she says.
The company employs 1,100 people all over the world, and is now aiming its sights on Asia Pacific, including Malaysia.
Not quite your dad’s inkjet
The term ‘3D printing’ may sound very workman-like and mundane for something that is straight out of science fiction, but you can blame that on the origin of the technology.
Manufacturing is typically a ‘subtractive’ process. Just as sculptor would with a block of stone, you remove all the bits you don’t want, to create the object you do want – whether it’s the part of an aircraft engine or car, or the plastic framework of a baby-seat.
Additive manufacturing is the opposite – you start with nothing but the design, and insert the material layer by layer according to the design specifications until you get that object you want, whether it is a concept model, rapid prototype, product mock-up, or even the actual product.
3D printing is essentially an additive manufacturing process where a solid object is made from a digital CAD design file. In Stratasys’ case, it uses its own additive technologies it calls FDM (Fusion Deposition Modelling) or PolyJet, where a model is created by laying down successive layers of material.
Instead of toner cartridges and inkjets to fire the ink, you have polyjets extruding or injecting special materials.
A kitchen company
Stratasys Ltd itself started life as Stratasys Inc in 1988, but the beefed-up company was formed after it merged with Objet Ltd last year. Last week, it announced it had reached a definitive merger agreement to acquire desktop 3D printing company MakerBot.
Founded in 2009, MakerBot helped develop the desktop 3D printing market and has sold more than 22,000 printers since 2009, Stratasys said in a statement.
Unlike other many technology companies, Stratasys did not start in a garage but in a kitchen. Indeed, the garage was merely in its second phase.
The company was founded by S. Scott Crump, now chairman and head of innovation, but who served as chief executive officer and president from 1988 to 2012.
“Scott (Crump) was the inventor of FDM technology,” says Kei (pic). “The story was, back in the 1980s, he wanted to build a unique toy for his daughter, and he had this idea of building it from scratch, layer by layer, via an additive process – with no human intervention.”
Crump played around with the idea of a polyjet – an inkjet technology that uses polymer plastics instead of ink.
“You inject the materials and you build it up,” says Kei. “And he was doing it in the kitchen. Mrs Crump was quite mad at the mess, and he was forced out to the garage, and that was how the company was formed.”
Mrs Crump – Lisa H. Crump – is credited as being the co-inventor of FDM technology and cofounder of Stratasys.
Theoretically, all 3D content can be ‘printed.’ “As long as you can capture that 3D software content in a computer environment, it can be printed,” says Kei.
“We’re passionate about how 3D printing is going to help change product development processes, and help designers design and innovate better.
“We’re the inventors of the technologies we use, including the FDM and polyjet technologies, which are the leading 3D printing technologies in the world right now,” she adds. “And we have over 500 patents.”
The innovation is not just at the printing technology level, but also at the types of materials that can be used. Stratasys boasts of having 130 different materials, more so than any other 3D printer company. It introduced 40 new materials last year alone.
These comprise proprietary photopolymer materials for its PolyJet technology and thermoplastic materials for its FDM technology – everything from opaque to translucent and even transparent materials, with higher end printer models able to mix and match or blend materials for a single ‘print-out.’
“We believe materials are going to define the future of 3D printing; the more materials we can produce, the more possibilities there are,” says Kei.
Next page: Emerging trends and uses driving the technology ... and vice versa
Emerging trends and uses
Traditionally, 3D printing has been strongest in the mechanical engineering world, where CAD software has had a foothold since the 1980s. This group still tends to be the most advanced users of 3D printing too, since all their design work just needs to be converted to a format suitable for output.
But new uses have emerged to drive the technology beyond its traditional markets. Some are expected, a mere progression from what has gone on before. For example, manufacturers now use it not just for R&D but also to make actual products … toy companies for one.
Reverse engineering can be dialled up too. “With 3D scanners, you can now scan an object and capture its 3D content, go back to the CAD environment where you do the meshing and get precise dimensions,” says Kei. “Once you’ve got that, you can print an identical object.”
“I can scan your face, and print out a model for you in a matter of hours,” she adds.
But it’s not all just fun and games – 3D printing has also found use in the dental and medical fields.
When coupled with CT (computed tomography) scans and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology, dentists can have moulds made to order according to a patient’s unique dental requirements.
“Everyone’s teeth are different; a dentist can scan your teeth through an oral scanner and output a mould that gives an identical replacement,” says Kei.
The same applies with CT scanners, MRI and other kinds of tools that can capture the data of a specific person. For example, if a patient is suffering from a tumour, the hospital can scan the skull and brain and build a physical model. The surgery team can use this to discuss and plan the operation.
“Our technology gives a simulation that is very close to reality, which is helpful for surgical teams,” says Kei. “Many of our medical customers have said it really helps reduce surgery times.”
3D printing can also be used for custom-made ‘jigs’ and ‘fixtures’ – tools that are used to hold open a surgical incision or wound as the doctor treats it or performs surgery. Once used, they have to be discarded. Currently, you have to depend on a range of standard sizes, and doctors would use the closest fit.
“With 3D printing, you can actually make jigs and fixtures uniquely suited to the patient,” says Kei.
Hollywood has been no laggard either – with so much of today’s film-making involving green rooms and virtual environments, 3D printing can be used to create props and sites that only live in writers’ fevered imaginings.
“As long as you have a 3D virtual environment, it can be reproduced,” says Kei, adding that Stratasys technology has been used in not just animated movies such as Tintin, but also Avatar, John Carter and the Iron Man series.
“Our technology has been used to make props, models and even the real hand of the actor,” she says. “The Iron Man outfit was 3D printed when it was first designed; then other materials such as fabrics were added to make it more comfortable for the actors.”
It’s the same kind of creative drive that is delighting users of Google SketchUp – a design and drawing tool that allows you to create ‘3Dify’ sketches of objects and landscapes on the computer. Couple that with a 3D printer, and you can actually make models of these object and landscapes.
Anyone up to making a model Jabberwocky?
Architects are cottoning on to this use as well. While architects have also been early adopters of CAD software, the models of the buildings they design have traditionally been done by hand.
“We go in and show them how they can just print out their CAD designs, and they go ‘wow’,” says Kei.
“In the past 30 years, CAD vendors have been doing a lot of work to make making sure people are drawing on a computer instead of a napkin.
“There are 14 million CAD seats out there already, and five million of them are 3D, but only fewer than 50,000 3D printers have been sold in total worldwide, including those from other vendors.
“There’s so much potential for us,” she says, adding that 30,000 of those printers are Stratasys printers sitting with 8,000 customers worldwide.
Next page: Asia Pacific an emerging market and great opportunity
Stratasys’ emerging markets
It is this ‘wow’ factor that Stratasys wants to bring to manufacturers in Asia, with largely the same vertical industries it has already brought on board in Europe and the United States: Automotive, aerospace and defence, the industrial and commercial sector, FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), consumer electronics, governments and education.
“We work with designers, manufacturers, organisations and individuals who do innovative work,” says Kei.
“We enable collaboration – designers in different parts of the world can now work on a design and see it manufactured right in front of them so that they can get and give immediate feedback and testing.
“Imagine this kind of collaboration being performed; instead of sending your design to a tool-shop to get the mould done, which could take weeks, you can now do it in a few hours or overnight,” she adds.
The company took part in the MetalTech Asia 2013 trade exposition in Kuala Lumpur last month, where it also officially introduced its three product lines to the local market:
- The Idea Series: Used most often by individual professionals, small design teams and educators, these printers are made for the desktop and will fit easily into any office, classroom or lab, says Stratasys. Concept models can be ready in a matter of hours, making feedback and adjustments easy to execute early in the design process.
- The Design Series: Most often used by teams of engineers, product designers or even students, and even by organisations of all sizes to bring products quickly to market without having to wait for outsourced prototypes.
- The Production Series (pic): Used mostly by manufacturing engineers, universities and large production teams, they are found on factory floors across a range of industries. With the option to print multiple materials, and a large build envelope for printing bigger objects, these printers are used to print jigs, fixtures and tools in a matter of hours, as they are needed, removing the need for inventory.
“We have offices and customers all over the world, and we want to leverage the global expertise we have and bring 3D printing knowledge to the local market,” says Kei.
This would also involve conducting training and knowledge transfer with its partners to explain the value of 3D printing; applications-wise, on how to best make use of 3D printing; and when it comes to peculiar uses, what the challenges are and the best way to resolve them.
“We’ve been able to leverage what US and European automotive companies are doing well with 3D printing, and have been sharing their experience with Malaysian automotive companies, for example,” she says.
“We also organise study missions for our customers – we encourage customers to share their experience,” she adds.
Stratasys has five offices in Asia: Two in Japan, two in China (in Shanghai and Hong Kong where it has its regional headquarters), and a small office in India.
“We have no offices in South-East Asia yet, and we rely 100% on our distributors. Currently, our sole distributor in Malaysia is the IME Group of Companies,” she says.
“We see Asia as a very strategic component of the Stratasys business; and in South-East Asia, we see Malaysia as quite a strategic hub, and also do a lot of work in Singapore and Thailand,” she adds.
Malaysia gets a call-out because, in terms of manufacturing capabilities, it is very advanced, with a lot of FMCG companies having R&D centres here.
“Furthermore, a lot of automotive multinationals have set up facilities here, and you also have a domestic automotive industry,” says Kei.
“You may be surprised, but a lot of Malaysian companies are already looking into 3D printing – we already have a lot of customers here,” she adds, declining however to disclose actual figures.
When asked why Stratasys has not opened an office in South-East Asia yet, Kei concedes that this is very much new territory for the company.
“You’ve got to realise that our Japan office was only opened last year,” she says. “It’s very new for us, which is why it’s very exciting – we see a very high-demand and high-growth market for us in this region.”
“We do see a very high potential here in Malaysia, and perhaps we will have an office here down the road – 3D printing is evolving as we speak and we’re open to many options; anything is possible.”
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