21 September 2019
3D printers are capable of creating intricate patterns and therefore great for prototyping. Photo: HKPC
3D printers are capable of creating intricate patterns and therefore great for prototyping. Photo: HKPC

Effective ways for SMEs to tap 3D printing

Imagine yourself walking into an optical shop to get an eye exam.

After the checking is done and while you are selecting the frame for your new glasses, a 3D printer starts to work on your prescription lens quietly.

Once you’ve picked the frame, the lens are already done and you can take home your new eyewear immediately after paying the bill.

It all sounds futuristic but 3D printing technology is advancing rapidly. So the day when this scenario becomes commonplace may not be so distant after all.

At the moment, government bodies like the Hong Kong Productivity Council have been actively promoting the knowhow and an increasing number of companies are willing to use and invest in the technology.

EJ Insight visited HKPC’s newly launched center 3D Printing One and talked to principal consultant Bryan So to find out more about the technology and how SMEs can take advantage of it.

3D printing has been around for over two decades. Bigger firms have long taken advantage of it to speed up their production process but local SMEs have been warming to it rather slowly.

But the expiration of certain patents in recent years changed that. Prices of 3D printers are becoming a lot cheaper for SMEs to be able to afford, according to So.

Compared to traditional manufacturing methods, 3D printing still cannot make things quite as fast. It usually takes hours, sometimes the whole day to print an item.

But for making prototypes, a crucial step before going into mass production, the technology is excellent.

“Take a pen, designers may want to see how it feels when holding it and writing with it, or how it looks when it’s put in the pocket of a suit,” So explains as he show how a 3D printer works using paper as the material to print out color objects.

Making a prototype the traditional way could take weeks. The other problem is the quality of work is usually inconsistent. There is also a lack of records of the exact details.

With 3D printing, it’s now much easier to turn an idea into a real object for further fine-tuning.

Watch, jewelry, eyewear, toy, gift and fashion industries are some of the sectors that can benefit from 3D printing, So says.

This is how 3D printing works.

First, you need to either scan the object you want to print to create a computer file 3D printers can read. Or you have to use computer-aided design (CAD) software to draw a 3D image.

You then store that into a USB or memory card, insert that into a 3D printer and the printing begins.

To popularize the technology, the HKPC is offering numerous courses, from introductory level to professional grade.

Assignments are in fact tailored to the specific tasks students want to apply 3D printing to, thereby making the courses more practical.

A 3D printer can be as cheap as a few hundred US dollars. But a high-end model using the latest technology can cost around half a million US dollars.

Before rushing to buy their own 3D printer, SMEs can first use the facilities of the 3D center to see how it works out. Minimum charge is as low as HK$300 each time.

When business grows to a certain volume, owning a 3D printer may become practical and more economical. SMEs can then consider buying one for themselves, So says.

Either way, SMEs can get a lot of advice from the center — from selecting printers to operating them.

The center houses a wide spectrum of 3D printers for different purposes, materials and levels of sophistication. Some handle smaller objects and some are big enough to print items like helmets and car bumpers.

The most powerful one is the Stratasys Connex 3. It looks very much like a premium grade office printer but uses materials like resin and rubber instead of paper.

To widen the application, the HKPC has also developed some industry-specific 3D printers, including one for the food industry and one for the medical sector.

The 3D food printer can be used for creating small, personalized items such as designer chocolates. The bone-graft 3D printer is arranging for animal testing and pre-clinical trials.

So expects to see more collaborations with different sectors to make highly specialized 3D printers.

As for the technology’s future, So sees 3D printers becoming more versatile in terms of the range of materials they can handle. They will also be offering higher resolution, better precision and higher speed but at lower costs.

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Stratasys Connex 3 is the center’s most powerful 3D printer. It can print out multi-color objects with varying degrees of flexibility, attaining a resolution level as fine as 0.016 mm. Photo: HKPC

EJ Insight writer