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3D Printing: Hype or World- transforming Technology?

Although the technology of 3D printing has been around for over 30 years, its development in recent years has drawn much attention from both manufacturers and consumers. Today, supporters of 3D printing believe that it has the potential to revolutionise the way we do everything - from healthcare to logistics to manufacturing. Does the global leader in 3D printing - HP - see these same opportunities? The IT Society speaks to HP Inc's Koh Kong Meng to get an insider's perspective.





Q: Is 3D printing a hype?

KM: There have always been many in ated claims about what new technology can do, but if you take a longer view of it, you will realise that most of them have been ful lled over time. Take the dot-com boom in the 2000s. It went bust because of unful lled expectations about the Internet, but those expectations have since been met and even surpassed. With 3D printing, the same concept applies. It's all about giving time for the expectations around 3D printing to bear fruit.


Q: Where do we stand in terms of 3D printing technology now?

KM:Good progress has been made in the recent years where 3D printing is concerned. However, there are still important challenges which need addressing before 3D printing can truly realise its full potential. One of it is the speed of production. Currently, 3D printing is mainly used for low volume, high-end products such as prototyping, or parts for the aerospace industry because 3D printers today are not able to produce high quality end-user parts at an acceptable speed. HP is addressing this today with 3D printers that print up to 10 times faster than the industry average at half the cost. We're also looking into ways to improve the speed of printing in the future.

Another aspect is the usable material for printing. The range of materials compatible with 3D printers at the moment is relatively limited. But that is changing. For example, at HP, we are exploring the possible use of metals and other materials through our HP Multi Jet Fusion Open Platform. The platform aims to foster widespread adoption of 3D printing by expanding the availability of new materials to address a broader set of applications, lowering material costs, and creating new possibilities for part properties that address specificc industry needs.

Q: Given these challenges, why is everyone still so excited about 3D printing?

KM: Primarily because once these challenges are resolved, 3D printing has the potential to drive down costs and increase usability in ways unimaginable with traditional modes of manufacturing. Compared to traditional manufacturing that uses a reductive process, 3D printing employs an additive process which allows for low volume customisation and production without compromising on tensile strength. In addition, 3D printing has the advantage of being able to print complex designs with minimum wastage.

And that is not all - 3D printing has the power to change global consumption. With traditional manufacturing, products are typically mass-produced for the sake of achieving economies of scale and then subsequently shipped to the place of sale. With 3D printing, products can be produced close to site of purchase or consumption as long as the design is available. Products can also be customised to t individual needs and taste. For instance, spectacle frames can be customised to suit personal face shapes and sizes.

On a macro level, 3D printing has the ability to transform the way businesses are conducted. Instead of building big production plants at low-cost sites and shipping goods around the world to different markets, 3D printing enables businesses to produce on demand close to markets where the products are consumed. Logistics become simplified, wastage is minimised and carbon footprint is reduced with manufacturing taking place closer to the source of consumption. In a nutshell, 3D printing makes for a more sustainable world.

Q: Besides hardware, what could impede the advance of 3D printing?

KM: The difference between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing processes means that workers will need to adopt very different mindsets and learn new skills. In some cases, I think there is even a need to unlearn the current way of doing things in order to take full advantage of what 3D printing can offer. But HP is already working on that. Our recent partnership with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) saw the launch of the HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Lab, which aims to train the next generation of engineers and designers.

Q: What keeps your passion burning for the tech industry after all the years?

KM: The tech industry is unique in that change is actively sought after. For example in the case of HP, we are driven by our guiding principle - innovation that matters - to constantly push for ways to improve our products by leveraging emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, social media, augmented reality, virtual reality, etc.

On top of that, we also proactively focus our product innovations to answer the question: "how do our products ful l human needs". By doing so, our purpose is strengthened and we are able to look beyond what we are currently doing to think of how we can do things differently to improve lives. With the amount of changes happening around us today at a high speed, such opportunities are everywhere, and they are exciting.

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