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Vase and furious

04 Sep 2021

Straits Times, 4 Sep 2021, Vase and furious
 
A technology that began as a faster way to make prototypes for industrial parts has taken the world by storm and gone mainstream.

Not only has three-dimensional (3D) printing evolved in the last decade to fast-track computer-generated designs into tangible final products that are market-ready, but it has also become so affordable that hobbyists can easily access the technology to make toys and decorative accessories at home.

Singapore companies such as Chemtron are selling the latest high-end 3D-printing solutions such as the Markforged X7 Industrial Printer, which costs from $100,000 and is powered by artificial intelligence.

Other companies such as Zelta3D and 3D Printing Singapore provide desktop design and 3D-printing services to companies and institutions who need prototypes as part of ongoing research and development.

There are also home-based outfits such as Hexar Creations which specialise in making collectible figurines from video games and movies.

Also called additive manufacturing (AM), 3D printing involves using computer-aided design (CAD) to create a three-dimensional model through a process in which plastic polymers are deposited layer by layer and then solidified to form an object. The whole process takes just a few hours.

The technology has been around since the late 1980s and was initially used for rapid prototyping in Japan, the United States and Europe, mainly for industrial uses.

It gained popularity in the last decade for being "hyper-local", where components are produced fast, on-demand and customised to precise specifications and doing away with third-party manufacturers.

In Singapore, the national accelerator for cutting-edge AM technologies, National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (Namic), has been working since its inception in 2015 to get more companies to boost their business and retain their competitive edge by using 3D printing.

With accelerating climate change and supply chain disruptions, Namic's key mission is to help companies harness technologies such as 3D printing to enable sustainable development and manufacturing.

It oversees a cluster of university technology translation hubs at Nanyang Technological University's Singapore Centre for 3D Printing; National University of Singapore's 3D Printing Centres at the Schools of Medicine and Engineering; and the Singapore University of Technology and Design's (SUTD) Digital Manufacturing and Design Centre.

Companies with innovative ideas and plans to integrate 3D printing into their businesses can apply for grants with Namic.

Over the years, it has raised more than $54 million in private and public funding to support more than 240 projects.

It has also spearheaded various initiatives including the AM Business Directory - with more than 160 local AM companies listed - as well as an online job portal, AM Careers@SG, to give AM employers and tech talent an added boost.

"The AM industry has pushed past the hype inflection point," says Dr Ho Chaw Sing, co-founder and managing director of Namic.

"Several industries are actively developing AM capabilities and making concrete steps towards adopting this transformative technology in their businesses. Singapore has progressed in this space and is recognised as one of the leading countries in the world with a coordinated strategy for AM industrialisation."

With Namic's funding, there have been some ground-breaking 3D-printing innovations.

Recently, researchers at SUTD have found a way to replace plastic with a greener alternative that is biodegradable. Called Flam (fungal-like adhesive material), it is a sustainable option to single-use plastics that is made of cellulose from plants and chitin from seafood shells.

The cost of Flam is less than $2 a kilogram, similar to what plastics cost today.

A lead researcher of the project is Assistant Professor Javier Fernandez, who is also co-founder of Chitonous, a start-up specialising in biomaterials which was spun off from the SUTD Flam project funded by Namic. "We managed to produce the material locally last year," he says. "It was quite an accomplishment, especially for Singapore, an entirely urban country without any primary industry."

The impact of 3D printing can be seen not just in the fields of industry and research, but also in the rise of the casual hobbyist.

Mr Ali Asghar Shabbar Hussain, 35, bought a $500 3D printer for home use in 2019 to make prototypes such as figurines and miniature cars.

He is one of a growing number of tech enthusiasts who have purchased AM equipment for use at home, according to industry players.

The consultant for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) education used to work with Lego bricks and plasticine to make prototypes but "they lacked finesse", especially when the virtual model had intricate patterns or human faces.

"Tech communities online and in Singapore have been growing over the years, so it has become easier to find help and ideas," says Mr Ali Asghar, who learnt to create computer-generated 3D models with help from online sites such as Tinkercad and Thingiverse.

He adds that 3D printing is not just for stationary models, such as figurines for his seven-year-old daughter to play with, but also for making components that can be pieced together to make moving objects. He has made 3D-printed clocks and self-watering plant systems.

Says the enthusiast: "I like 3D printing because it can transform any virtual model on my computer screen into tangible reality."

Homing in on a crafters' paradise
Mr Jeremy Wee, who runs a home-based 3D-printing business from the study of his five-room Housing Board flat in Bukit Panjang, says the possibilities of 3D printing are "extremely vast".

"Some of the 3D-print jobs I have completed for my customers show how even home-use printers are able to produce complex creations with fine detailing and textures," says the 33-year-old, who started Hexar Creations (hexarcreations. com) in 2019. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering from Nanyang Technological University in 2014.

To illustrate the technology's capabilities, he recently shared on Instagram a 60cm-tall figurine of Lightning from hit video game Final Fantasy XIII and the Millennium Falcon spacecraft from the Star Wars movies.

He has eight 3D printers from well-known brands such as such as Creality, Anycubic and DreamForge, which cost from $350 to $1,000. "As someone who enjoys tinkering with machines from a young age, I have also modified most of these printers for better performance," he adds.

Besides taking on customised print jobs, Mr Wee also sells a range of home products such as 3D-printed clay tools for polymer clay crafting, and decorative planters for indoor potted plants ranging from $5.50 to $48 on the website.

"During the pandemic last year, we sold more polymer clay cutters which are priced at $9 for home crafters. Also popular were our made-to-order figurines used for painting over with colours, as more people were looking to craft projects to help them cope with staying home," he says.

Mr Wee is looking for more challenges. "Besides including more decorative 3D-printed objects, I am also looking to design moulds for home decor accessories that are one-of-a-kind.

"I believe Hexar Creations is well placed to create new, customised products that home owners and collectors will love."

High-tech printer comes with AI
The world's most advanced 3D printers can be found at Chemtron's 4,000 sq ft showroom and office in Henderson Industrial Park.

The home-grown company sells 3D printers and scanners to a wide range of customers from hobbyists to heavy machinery manufacturers and offers a full range of 3D solutions.

The cost ranges from $5,000 to $300,000, depending on the application of the customer, the technology used, size and materials.

According to business development manager Tony Moochala, one of the top-of-the-line 3D-printing machines is the Markforged X7 Industrial Printer. The printer, which is powered by artificial intelligence (AI), is said to be able to churn out vital components for manufacturing, semiconductor assembly, electronics and aerospace at a substantial reduction in cost, compared with conventional modes of production using heavy duty machining.

Its price tag starts at $100,000, depending on the size and model, and is mainly for industrial use.

"The Markforged X7 software runs on a cloud so you can be anywhere in the world and send your parts to print," says Mr Moochala, 32, who has been with the company since 2015. He studied accountancy at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and had worked as an auditor.

Chemtron is part of the USC Group of Companies, which was founded in 1958 by his grandfather M.Y. Moochhala and provides architectural and drafting equipment in Singapore. Chemtron was set up in 1995 to bring in innovative technologies, products and systems in both the medical and manufacturing sectors.

One of the key features of the Markforged X7 is that the laser scanner is in-built and it scans the parts while printing through a special software called Blacksmith.

After the print is completed, the user gets a quality control report to ensure the part printed is within the specification and tolerance for use for its intended purpose.

"This has never been done before and customers would need to use other machines and measuring tools to get the dimensions of the 3D-printed part. In essence, it is the AM platform that connects the designing of the part, the production and inspection with powerful AI."

Low-end desktop printers can cost from about $500 to more than $5,000, depending on the output's size. For business and studio use, Mr Moochala says designers and company owners usually go for 3D printers in the $15,000 to $50,000 range.

His customers come from a range of industries such as medical, aerospace, dental and jewellery manufacturing.

He says the company is looking at creating customised furniture next. "When I was looking for furniture for my new Housing Board Build-To-Order flat in Bedok in 2018, I noticed that the range of furniture here is quite limited.

"I want to use 3D printing to help bring out the personality of the home owner through bespoke, one-of-a-kind furniture pieces. Be it a funky coffee table or a bookshelf, I want to be able to use tech to make works of art."

Savings in time and materials
Before 3D printing was available to the masses about six years ago, there was old-school injection moulding, a traditional process that was costly and took months to set up before manufacturing of industrial parts could commence.

Additive manufacturing (AM) company Zelta3D says all that has changed.

According to its website, quotations for 3D-printing projects take about five seconds and subsequent fabrication for parts can be completed in about three days using "the most advanced plastic manufacturing technology of the decade".

The home-grown tech company in Boon Lay Way was founded in 2017 by brothers Wong Ming Wei, 30, and Wong Ming Zheng, 28, shortly after the former graduated from Nanyang Technological University in mechanical engineering.

"We started out making 3D mock-ups using benchtop 3D printers from home," says Mr Wong Ming Zheng. "After saving up, we started Zelta3D to provide industrial 3D-printing services on a larger scale for thousands of clients around the globe, mainly start-ups, small and medium enterprises, multinational companies and institutions."

He says his company is able to maintain agility in its operations because 3D-printing technology is constantly evolving with new machines being released every year.

Zelta3D has made more than 600,000 parts and seen about 100 per cent revenue growth every year, serving customers in eight countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Its clients include ST Engineering, A*Star, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

The most common material used in 3D printers is plastics such as nylon. Instead of sculpting an item from a chunk of metal or plastic, 3D printing precisely fabricates the item layer by layer. As a result, there is considerably less scrap waste - between 70 and 90 per cent less compared with some traditional manufacturing methods.

AM is also ideal for generating components that are highly complex, with an expected quantity of below 1,000 pieces and which need speedy production for the market.

"Three-dimensional printing is perfect for companies that want to experiment with prototypes that can be churned out fast and within budget," says Mr Wong. "There is no one size that fits all in business and that plays to the strengths of 3D printing."

From design to reality, all in a jiffy
Can a prototype also be a final product?

The answer is a resounding "yes", according to Mr Colin Ouyang and Mr Francis Chang, founders of home-grown additive manufacturing (AM) company 3D Print Singapore in Toa Payoh North.

Mr Ouyang, 33, says it is now possible to convert a design created in the computer into a final product that businesses can start marketing - bypassing the circuitous route of creating an injection mould, making several adjustments and iterations before finally arriving at a market-ready product.

"Up until recently, 3D-printed parts were never seriously considered as final products," says Mr Ouyang, who together with fellow tech enthusiast Mr Chang, 36, founded the company in 2020.

"We foresee the acceptance of 3D-printed parts as final products to continue to increase in the near future."

The company prints a wide range of products fashioned from plastic polymers, resins and metal powders that are loaded into the 3D-printing machines. These include figurines for private collectors, architectural models for designers, spare parts for the aerospace industry and prototypes for research and development.

Mr Ouyang expects to see more projects to be quickly developed and deployed in a short time frame of months instead of years, thanks to material and tech advancements in the 3D-printing industry.

He adds: "3D-printed products are currently in direct competition with traditional mass-manufacturing that uses injection-moulded plastics."