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Industry's bright spark: Adding bite to additive manufacturing

Singapore is a leading adopter of the technology in R&D, yet lags behind in industrial use. What might it take to change this?

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A laser head deposits melted material layer by layer inside one of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster’s (Namic) metal additive manufacturing machines.

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3D-printed dentures (top row) and dental crowns (bottom row) manufactured by Star3D replicate the natural colours of teeth.

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3D-printed ceramic parts are placed into a furnace for the sintering process, which makes the product more compact.

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Namic's startup booth at the Industrial Transformation Asia Pacific event in 2018, the first Asia Pacific edition of Hannover Messe. The seventh Namic Summit, from May 6 to 10, will tackle the education and awareness gap with a focus on DFAM and design thinking.

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Local enterprise Dental Star has teamed up with A*Star for joint venture Star3D, using additive manufacturing technologies in the dental industry. (From left) Dr Loh Xian Jun, head of the soft materials department in A*Star's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE); Vincent Yuen, managing director of Star3D; Professor Alfred Huan, executive director of IMRE; Dr Wang Fuke, IMRE senior scientist.

WHEN the industry-invoking term "additive manufacturing" or AM arose, it aimed to put some distance between the factory-ready technology to which it refers, and early consumer uses of "3D printing", the more familiar term. Instead of crude extruded plastic, AM refers to high-precision processes.

Yet to what degree has the technology managed to move from prototyping to production in Singapore, where the manufacturing industry has often been labelled as slow to change?

The state of AM in Singapore is a tale of two domains, say industry players. On the one hand, it is highly adopted by educational and research institutions, with an established role in research and development (R&D).

On the other, industrial use of AM is still in a "very, very infant" state, says Terrence Oh, senior vice-president for Asia Pacific at international industrial 3D printing supplier EOS.

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Ironically, though Singapore is home to EOS's Asia-Pacific headquarters, the island accounts for less than 1 per cent of regional revenue.

Making it better

Granted, one should not expect AM to be adopted everywhere, as National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (Namic) managing director Ho Chaw Sing points out: "It's a value-added thing. 3D printing is not supposed to replace everything."

AM should be used if and only if it makes sense for a particular product, he adds. Namic was set up in 2015 to work with universities to translate research into industrial solutions. The starting point for projects has not changed: "We need to define the needs of the end-users very clearly."

AM is broadly suited for high-mix, low-volume production: small numbers of varied items. But to reap the true benefits, products must have certain attributes so that AM makes sense from a cost or time perspective.

One attribute is complexity. As Dr Ho puts it: "Complexity is actually free with 3D printing." Designs that are expensive or simply impossible to produce via traditional means may be possible with AM, which builds up an item layer by wafer-thin layer.

Mr Oh gives examples from EOS clients: injection moulding inserts, say, which can be 3D-printed with intricate internal cooling channels. This allows for more uniform cooling and reduces the chance of deformation.

Another example is aerospace turbine blades. Instead of being whittled down from a solid block, blades can have an internal lattice under a skin, making them much lighter and thus helping airlines reduce fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions. "If you design this properly, it could even be stronger than the original part," adds Mr Oh, as the lattice structure can redistribute stresses across the blade.

Complex parts which once needed welding and assembly can be 3D-printed instead. This saves time, reduces defects, and simplifies supply chains.

A second attribute is a "batch size of one" when a single copy is needed, such as with spare parts. Instead of holding inventory of slow-moving parts or waiting for them to be shipped, parts can be 3D-printed on-demand where they are needed.

In Singapore's marine and offshore industry, parts are usually forged overseas. It could take eight to 12 months from placing an order to receiving the part, says Dr Ho. 3D printing could cut this down to two months or so. As time is money, clients will be glad to pay the premium.

A third attribute that lends itself to AM is customisation. The medical applications are clear: 3D printing allows for personalised products, from prosthetics and implants, to surgical guides that allow "test runs" or planning, to insoles and dental aligners.

Dental clinics here may soon 3D-print temporary crowns, and eventually permanent ones. This is using a special material developed by Star3D, a joint venture by local firm Dental Star and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

Conventionally, a clinic uses soft material to take an impression of the patient's teeth. This is sent to a dental lab, which takes seven to 14 days to produce a crown. In the meantime, the patient wears an obvious-looking, single-colour temporary crown.

Star3D takes just 20 minutes to make a temporary crown with a colour gradient close to the natural look of teeth. This aesthetic quality is what customers prize most, says managing director Vincent Yuen.

AM is part of the company's overall digital dentistry approach, including an intra-oral scanner that digitally scans teeth instead of taking a physical impression. In addition to selling its 3D printer and material, Star3D will provide AM as a service for small clinics that cannot afford to buy the system. The aim is to offer permanent crowns by the end of 2020, after certification is received. With China as its main market, high volumes will help keep costs down, says Mr Yuen.

T32 Dental Group is one local player that plans to buy Star3D's printer and materials. With machines in their clinics, dentists can save time and costs, says managing director Wong Keng Mun: "You have a laptop and a 3D printer, and you press and print - it's easy."

Dr Wang Fuke, senior scientist at A*Star's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, notes that the composite material has other benefits. The liquid-based AM process prints a smooth and accurate surface that needs no polishing. Traditional ceramic is harder than natural teeth and can thus damage them, whereas the hardness of Star3D's material can be "tuned" to suit each patient.

Yet ceramic has a place in AM too. Creatz3D general manager Sean Looi hopes Singapore can become a world player in the relatively new field of ceramics AM, where the island is "not as far behind" other countries as it is in established materials such as metals and plastics. Ceramics AM has a lower breakeven quantity than metals or plastics, making it easier to achieve cost-effectiveness, he adds.

Creatz3D's customers span sectors such as medical devices, semiconductors, defence, aerospace, and chemicals. Traditional ceramics manufacturing does not allow for complex designs, says Mr Looi. "With AM, we can then give a lot of design freedom and challenge the norm."

Yet the very reason Creatz3D went into ceramics in 2017 was because it "saw that adoption of 3D printing is actually quite limited" - a sentiment echoed by other players.

Printer jam

Creatz3D began in 2012, early in Singapore's AM story. Back then, most companies were simply buying and selling 3D printing technology, says Mr Looi. "That wasn't really bringing the game to the next level."

A question arose: "Do people actually know how to use the technology and how to maximise the capabilities of the technology?" Creatz3D decided to invest in helping firms build these technical capabilities instead. Its focus turned to technical support: not just servicing and repairs, but application and usage of AM.

Similarly, EOS started out selling AM machinery and powders before realising this was "not enough", says Mr Oh. As 3D-printed products need pre- and post-processing, EOS packaged these services with its AM solutions. Yet that too did not suffice.

So five years ago, EOS's Europe headquarters started up consulting arm Additive Minds, which is now present in Singapore too. The aim is for a transfer of AM know-how, from selecting the appropriate parts to manufacture - those with both "technical and commercial feasibility" - to design for AM or DFAM: "How do you redesign your part so that you can fully leverage the value of AM?"

The latter is a gap in the market, says Namic's Dr Ho, with few qualified DFAM designers in Singapore.

At the other end of the value chain, EOS also helps firms with paperwork and documentation for certification.

Indeed, this is one obstacle to AM adoption, or at least one reason that progress appears slow: the long certification process for AM-made parts.

Asked what is stopping Singapore's AM industry from flourishing, Namic's Dr Ho replies: "I'd say very little, except the fact that any product that you need to put into the field, you have to go through a due diligence process."

After all, AM is often used for high-performance parts. In aerospace, 3D-printed engine parts face a necessarily rigorous process of testing and certification.

Similarly, Namic is working with orthopedic surgeons to evaluate 3D-printed implants, "but the regulatory pathway is extremely far out".

Mr Oh identifies another issue: the current reluctance of international OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) to bring AM technology out of their overseas headquarters.

"Over time, when (the technology) becomes more mature and stable, then they will probably push out the less critical or non-confidential parts and outsource it to their subsidiaries around the world," he adds. But until then, Singapore will suffer from a lack of these major early-adopters.

At another level, large players in general face "the innovator's dilemma", says Namic's Dr Ho: "They know it's important to innovate, but because of the nature of large businesses, any innovation will actually disrupt their own business model."

Then there are Singapore's small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which have a reputation for being reluctant to change. Mr Looi notes that many companies here are contract manufacturers which feel compelled to accept their clients' designs rather than counter-propose more efficient alternatives that use AM.

TÜV SÜD global product services chief executive officer Holger Lindner sees this "cultural challenge" as a question of courage: "The courage to shoot big, not to do incremental steps and be scared of making failures. ...It's not in the DNA of all players yet."

Little by little

Yet there are many reasons for optimism about the future of AM here, says Mr Lindner. "You have all the ingredients that it takes to succeed."

He rattles off a list: skilled engineers and technicians; a good environment for intellectual property (IP) protection; high-class technology; and a context of government enablement.

Adoption may be niche today, but not forever, he adds. "We cover nearly all industry verticals. In every single vertical we see an opportunity to come out of that niche and go into mass production."

Singapore's AM industry is at a point on the exponential curve just before it picks up, waiting for true disruption: "After the disruption I predict that it will accelerate pretty fast."

Namic's Dr Ho points to how far the industry has already come. Three years ago, there was "a lot of research, a lot of papers, but no IPs".

Today there are easily more than 100 companies in this space here, including equipment manufacturers, materials suppliers, service providers, and end-users: "The ecosystem has actually built up very rapidly."

Creatz3D itself has seen progress. In its early years, about 60 per cent of its installed base was in research and educational institutions. Today the balance has flipped, with 60 to 65 per cent in commercial companies.

What the industry needs is more time to "experience AM as a viable option", says Mr Lindner: "The moment you have two or three good examples that it does work, and people realise 'Oh, it's not only an idea or a subsidised research project, there is commercial relevance' - I think more and more people will jump on the bandwagon and then it really takes off."

""We're not waiting, we're driving it," he adds. There are exciting projects in the works, though of course TÜV SÜD cannot share details yet.

For its part, Namic is pushing the industry towards adoption by working with regulators to embed AM into industry transformation maps, from construction to aviation. It also continues to act as a "concierge service", engaging the industry to discover how AM can provide solutions.

The seventh Namic Summit, from May 6 to 10, will tackle the education and awareness gap with a focus on DFAM and design thinking.

As for SMEs, what they need is access to AM and a chance to realise its benefits, say industry players.

EOS's Mr Oh has one proposal: "Let's say an institution were to produce parts for them at cost price, a limited amount. After trying it, then they will realise the benefits. ...I think this is one area where the government can really help with AM."

In February, Creatz3D started a trial programme of loaning AM machines to customers for a few months, to "let them get a glimpse of how AM can help them", says Mr Looi.

The mindset change that has to happen, he adds, is that clients should be willing to approach AM firms with a problem statement and explore possibilities. "They should always start a discussion. Whether the end result is feasible or not, they should have that open mindset."

There is also the "service bureau" model, particularly widespread in China, where SMEs can get parts printed for them by service providers.

"They don't necessarily have to buy the equipment themselves if it's not economic, but they can access the capability through service bureaus," says HP's vice-president for 3D printing and digital manufacturing for Asia-Pacific and Japan Rob Mesaros.

Noting that HP has been having particular success in the service bureau space in China, he sees an opportunity for Singapore to position itself as a service bureau capability hub for South-east Asia.

Yet the future of AM in Singapore is not just about getting local firms to adopt the technology. In fact, that is not where the industry's true value necessarily lies, say players.

"They don't have to make it (the 3D-printed product) in Singapore," says Namic's Dr Ho. "You anchor the design IP here. That's the true value."

Some manufacturing activity may indeed follow, he adds: "Some of the high-value-added manufacturing where it makes sense to anchor in Singapore, you anchor in Singapore because it's essential IPs."

To HP, Singapore has long been important as a market in which to vest high-value IP and manufacturing. HP's own 3D printers are made here, with about 140-odd parts printed by the printers themselves.

"Singapore is not exciting in isolation as a market to sell into," Mr Mesaros says. "It's to collaborate with. That really is the appeal for us."

Furthermore, while AM's early importance lay in facilitating academic research, there is now value in AM-related industrial R&D itself. HP, for instance, opened an S$84 million corporate research lab in partnership with Nanyang Technological University last October, for digital manufacturing technologies including AM.

Singapore is also home to the first Asia research hub of German specialty chemical firm Evonik - with AM being one of the research areas - and will soon house German conglomerate Thyssenkrupp's first AM innovation centre outside Germany.

Singapore's AM journey continues on two fronts: getting more homegrown manufacturers to adopt AM, while strengthening the island's role as a place to develop AM technologies that can be taken worldwide.

As TÜV SÜD's Mr Lindner puts it: "I don't think it's that important that you do everything here... The advantage I see is that whatever we do in Singapore can be scaled up."

And homegrown firms, too, can take the latter path, he adds: "They have the ability to mature the technology here, and grow with that technology out of Singapore."