Handle 3D printing with care
Updated: 2012-12-07 08:10
By Zhao Gang (China Daily)
The recent high-profile media coverage on 3D printing has put the technology under spotlight across the world. The technology was introduced to the market in the 1980s but its high cost made it barely affordable for most. But today it is becoming an increasingly mature technology, and the changed business model and industrial chain have made it affordable for many.
The rapid rise of 3D printing has brought about revolutionary changes in the market. It is widely used in industrial manufacturing, scientific research, aeronautics and astronautics, defense and military industries, biomedical engineering, construction, cultural and creative industries, education, heritage preservation, food processing and the auto industry. Besides, it has also been given full play in industrial design, animation, education and medical services.
As the first country to start research and development into 3D printing, the United States deserves its leading position in the technology. It also deserves two of the world's leading 3D printing companies, Stratasys and 3D Systems.
Stratasys has acquired Israeli company Objet, and 3D Systems has bought Z Corporation and Vidar Systems, all three of which are well-known 3D printing brands, consolidating their positions in the industry. The two American companies have an R&D budget of $10 million each and acquired technologies and patents from external sources either through contracted development or direct purchase to gain access to core technology and continue to be the global leaders in 3D printing.
Moreover, the US government pays close attention to 3D printing technology and regards it as one of the most important supporting technologies to revive its manufacturing. It has already spent $30 million to build a national-level R&D center for 3D printing additive manufacturing and plans to spend another $500 million for 3D printing.
In addition, US President Barack Obama has proposed an investment of $1 billion to establish an innovative nationwide network for manufacturing, comprising 15 manufacturing innovation institutions, to stimulate innovation and growth in manufacturing, boost the domestic economy and create more jobs.
In comparison, 3D printing started in China only recently. And though the sector has made certain achievements, the overall level of R&D in 3D printing and commercialization in the country is way below the US'. To promote the industrialization process of 3D printing in China, Asian Manufacturing Association joined hands with Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Tsinghua University and leading Chinese 3D printing companies in October to establish an industrial association for 3D printing technology.
China accounts for 21 percent of the world's total manufacturing value, surpassing the US' 19.4 percent. It is obvious that the US will try to regain its dominant position in manufacturing, with 3D printing being its best tool to do so. Some US magazines have even assumed that the future of manufacturing is in the US rather than China because of its technological advantage in 3D printing among other things.
Therefore, a new round of competition between China and the US is likely in the 3D printing-led technological revolution.
But since both countries face severe as well as casual challenges in industrial ethics, copyrights and crime, they have to deepen their cooperation to overcome the odds.
3D printing technology is also likely to trigger a competition in the military field. Implementation of this emerging technology can help reduce costs substantially and enhance safety in aerospace and weapons' manufacturing. And though the cost of eliminating the old technology may be higher than the profit in the short term, the situation will be reversed in the long run, making 3D printing very important for aeronautics, astronautics and weapon manufacturing.
In August, the US Department of Defense announced that it would allocate $60 million for R&D in 3D printing in scientific institutions and companies to accelerate the development of its aerospace and weapons industries. This should make China expedite the application of 3D printing technology to its defense industry.
One example of how 3D printing has influenced the arms industry is that, after the technology was used to make guns, they became more easily available. So countries have to take every possible measure to ensure that criminal gangs don't get access to the technology, because they can wreak havoc in society. Though China has a strict gun-control policy, the fact is that implementing the policy would become very difficult if it is easy for people to download gun designs and forge them with the help of 3D printing technology.
Given the transnational nature and reach of the Internet, governments of all countries have to deepen cooperation to overcome potential challenges. And China and the US should join hands with other countries to prevent free access to gun designs.
The author is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development.