LAST week, a news agency reported that employees of a design company in Taiwan are cycling through the streets of Taipei and turning discarded plastic cups and bottles into pieces of art on the spot with an ordinary bike festooned with pumps, wires, tubes and display panels and a 3D printer.
The entire rig, called Mobile Fab, cuts the plastic into strips before grinding it into fine powder which is later fed into the 3D printer on the front of the bike, using it as the “ink” to create a small medallion they attach to a coloured light.
The medallion can be worn in any way the person pleases but was initially designed to attach to the spokes of a bike wheel.
The technology of 3D printing has definitively come a long way since it was first invented in late 1980s and early 1990s.
Known as additive manufacturing, it was initially used to allow manufacturers to create, test and examine an object more closely before producing a finished product.
The credit for early work on the technology goes to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a company called 3D Systems. Since then, the technology has developed in many ways, from the fineness of detail a machine can print to the amount of time required to clean and finish the object when the printing is complete.
Printing machines now range from size of a microwave oven to a small car and the processes are getting faster, the materials and equipment are getting cheaper, and more materials are being used, including metals and ceramics.
There are different types of 3D printing technologies. Syringe Extrusion is a method that allows users to print certain foods like chocolate, frosting and cheese.
Stereolithography (SLA) works by concentrating a beam of ultraviolet light focused onto the surface of a vat filled with liquid photocurable resin, while polyJet photopolymer allows for various materials and colours to be incorporated into single prints, and at high resolutions.
The technology is definitely a game changer in many ways as it can instantly print parts and entire products, anywhere in the world.
“3D printing can help SMEs grow tremendously,” said 3D Printers Sdn Bhd managing director Owen Poh.
Poh’s company is one of the leading distributors of 3D printers in Malaysia and an advocate for the new-age technology.
“Imagine being able to work on a prototype and make changes before meeting with an angel investor for a fraction of what the process used to cost. SMEs can now take the risk of creating their designs without the burden of a heavy investment,” explained Poh.
“3D printing also slashes the time required for research and development. It only takes two hours and 30 minutes to print a product that weighs 35 grammes, depending on its complexity,” said Poh.
3D printing has definitely come a long way in Malaysia according to Poh, who started distributing the machines and materials two years ago.
Poh said during exhibitions, only one out of 1,000 visitors truly understood the concept of 3D printing but with the launch of the company’s new discovery centre, he hopes to educate more students and business owners about the technology.
“We launched our discovery centre at The Strand in Kota Damansara to showcase the benefits of 3D printing to students and SME business owners. They can learn more about 3D printing and how it will help them,” said Poh.
As the eco-system around the technology grows, Poh expects his business to grow by 100%.
The need for a working prototype has become an essential requirement for investors who are funding SMEs.
With this in mind, another Malaysian company, Make Space, has set up shop to help students and business owners work on their projects.
Founded by four budding entrepreneurs — Hakim Albasrawy, Sky Chew, Ngai Lai Yuen and Kal Joffres — Make Space considers itself a a “gym” for creative projects and also offers 3D printing as one of its services.
“Entrepreneurs of the past had to work out of their bedroom or basement if they had an idea that they wanted to bring to life. Now, they have a space fitted with all the items they need to carry out their project,” said Hakim, adding that 3D printing is helping start-ups cut costs.
“It is said that by failing you are learning, but sometimes failing can be expensive,” Hakim added.
“For example, if you are jewellery designer and you would like your customers to see how the jewellery looks on them, you can make a sample using a 3D printer for a fraction of the cost.
“Once your client is happy with the look and feel of the sample, you can proceed to make a real one. This will save time and money,” added Chew.
According to the lads of Make Space, 3D printing has given the opportunity for most SMEs to kick-start their business. For those without any funding, 3D printing enables them to create a working prototype at minimal cost.
While 3D printing is not able to rapidly mass produce items yet, it enables people to customise products to suit their needs.
3D printing will be a game changer for many businesses and will open up possibilities for those with ideas. It might even start household-level production of some things as applications of the technology expand and prices drop.
It could also mean an end to China’s mass-manufacturing model that has made it an economic powerhouse by eliminating shipping and inventories.
The technology offers promise that has barely been tapped in Malaysia and could change things the way computers have changed communications. After all, it was once said that there’s only room for four computers in this world.