Widely regarded as the future of manufacturing, additive manufacturing which has stepped into the limelight in recent years may offer the window of opportunity for the Singaporean manufacturing sector to stay competitive. By Wong Tsz Hin
Additive manufacturing, more popularly known as 3D printing, is not a recent innovation, but a technology that has been around for over two decades. However, it was only in recent years that the manufacturing process has come into prominence, aided by advancements in material and process technologies.
Considered just a sub-segment of precision engineering for a long time, additive manufacturing has since stepped out of the shadow and into the limelight. It is now widely considered as the future of manufacturing as well as an integral component of Industry 4.0, so much so that the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB) has included it as one of its strategic intents.
Recognising its enormous potential, the EDB has partnered the Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) in establishing the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) at the school’s campus as part of the infrastructure building plan to align Singapore with this global trend.
The objective of the centre is to move local companies towards industry adoption, realisation and fulfilment. “EDB sees it as the future of manufacturing and is creating an ecosystem that connects the entire industrial chain,” said David Wong, head of the centre.
According to him, the foundation was laid over 20 years ago when the school launched its rapid prototyping centre. “Back then, we saw this technology emerged quickly in Germany and Switzerland, and saw a lot of alignment between what we do in manufacturing and precision engineering.”
The pace picked up in 1993 when Singapore started moving from Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) to Original Design Manufacturing (ODM). The shift helped the country leveraged on its strengths such as the availability of skilled manpower and overcome growing bottlenecks like increasing labour costs.
“Additive manufacturing is one area that can see Singapore catch up with the rest of the world because it is innovation and technologically driven,” he added.
Mr Wong said that the sudden surge in interest in additive manufacturing was fuelled by the Obama administration’s intention to move manufacturing back to the US. Additive manufacturing enables the country to produce at its own backyard with the high number of designers and programmers that it produces. Most importantly, through additive manufacturing, the US is able to compete against countries like China.
However, at the moment, there are still many challenges ahead for additive manufacturing. “Currently, we are not able to print for production as the materials available are not good enough and post-processing is still necessary,” he explained. “Materials will be a crucial factor and many people have ventured into the development of smart materials that can take the process to the next level.”
Unable to rival injection moulding based on price, additive manufacturing remains a more complementary process, although successes have already been found in more niche sectors.
“Additive manufacturing is widely used in the aerospace and medical industries to make parts such as titanium implants which are more complicated, personalised and customised,” he said. “If we can consolidate 10 parts and print them out together with all the intricacies, then there will be a lot of benefits.”
Another obstacle lies in making companies understand how additive manufacturing can be integrated into their existing production process and what it can do for them.
“3D printing has continued to improve in terms of equipment, technology and processes. It is important that we pass the knowhow to the industry, but before we can do that, we must get the people on board first,” he said. “We are very happy that the media attention on the technology has attracted a lot of CEOs to take a serious look at it.”
Part of the industry adoption strategy involves engaging industrial professionals, bringing them in and co-creating and co-incubating with them to find products that can benefit from additive manufacturing and explore how they can be delivered to the market place. “This is the greatest way towards realisation.”
So far, the centre has met up with direct stakeholders and corporate management from 50 companies of different sizes to educate them about additive manufacturing. Customising the presentation based on the specific requirements of the companies, the centre shares best practices and success stories as illustrations.
“After these sessions, they will send the next level of people to try it out. This is what we want. We have to walk to talk and in the process, we discover new things and new problems as well.”
To fully realise the potential of additive manufacturing, there is a need for the manufacturing industry to change its mindset and rethink conventional constraints. What were previously impossible for traditional manufacturing processes are now possible with additive manufacturing, but the key lies in breaking away from these limitations and designing with the latter in mind.
This is especially important as the manufacturing industry moves towards Industry 4.0 which focuses on intelligent and highly-customisable designs. “In the future, people will not want to keep physical stocks, but digital stocks,” Mr Wong elaborated. “They want to be able to retrieve a digital file and manufacture immediately. That requires design and programming capabilities.”
“Additive manufacturing no longer exists in words or academic journals. It has been proven and industries have already taken advantage of it by making the first move. Now, we need to move ahead and quickly join them as the second or third mover.”
With intensifying pressure from the Asian region, flanked by neighbours with lower logistic costs and overshadowed by the manufacturer of the world China, innovation may be the only way for Singapore to remain at the forefront and that is exactly what additive manufacturing is all about.