3D printing is being banked on by the Singapore government as one of the next big things, with massive investments and plans to grow the industry. But it's not the only one jumping on the bandwagon, the country will soon face intense competition from the region which is also making big bets.
Singapore was actually a pioneer in 3D printing when it came about around two decades ago, but has since lagged behind in terms of developing talent, according to Ian Gibson, associate professor for engineering design and innovation center at National University of Singapore.
"We started early when the machines nearly started coming out, there was a lot of interest locally," he said.
Singapore playing catch up
However Gibson pointed out Singapore was "very into semiconductors" at that time, so the technology did not serve the ecosystem. "We tried that. It didn't really work for Singapore, so there was a hiatus, if you like, because of the lack in investment."
"We're still playing catch up now, if you look at the U.S. and Europe, there’s significantly more machines, being used in a much wider range of applications."
for engineering design and innovation center, NUS.
The associate professor added 3D printing was more suitable for industries such as automotive, aviation, and medical, which were more advanced in Europe and the United States then.
"We're still playing catch up now, if you look at the U.S. and Europe, there’s significantly more machines, being used in a much wider range of applications," Gibson noted.
The Singapore government has been looking to close the gap. Earlier this year, it allocated some S$500 million (US$398 million) over the next five years to boost capabilities in advanced manufacturing, with 3D printing a key area.
There is also support from the private sector where 3D printing has also come under the radar of more investors and venture capitalists, who are moving away from software and Internet types to hardware startups, noted Gibson.
Industry interest has grown so much that Singapore will play host for the first time to the Inside 3D Printing Conference next week.
Another reason behind the recent heightened interest globally includes the significantly improved affordability and user-friendliness of the technology.
3D printers used to cost millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars as recent as 2011, but now a consumer friendly one can be as cheap as US$99, said Benoit Valin, director and founder of Prototype Asia. The affordability has allowed more users to explore the technology, and also created more applications for it. For example, there are now smaller printers being made to cater to new markets for small offices, and sector specific types for dental, aerospace, and medical.
The Singapore-based engineer set up his company two years ago to "test waters", providing services in rapid prototyping, product development and reverse engineering. The two-man outfit broke even within four months, doubling its revenue in the second year in 2012 to S$700,000 (US$557,000).
The heightened publicity has also encouraged more people to explore the technology. Valin pointed out one of his more interesting projects was making props for a magician.
He added companies were increasingly incorporating 3D printing into their research and development (R&D) workflow due to the benefits such as reduced time to market thanks to accelerated feedback especially from focus groups.
"Companies ask us to solve problems, like 'I would like something to raise customer satisfaction' or 'can I have something to improve product safety'," said Valin. For instance, he described how his company developed an anti-tampering device for milk powder cans for a food and beverage producer.
Valin likened 3D printing to the Internet when it just started to take off in the 90's, where its potential applications were still largely uncharted.
Volatile client base
Ironically, demonstrating the returns on 3D printing for customers has seen them disappear as well.
"We had clients in aerospace, within a month they're gone because they bought their own printer, we had clients in electronics who were gone because they hired their own engineers to do what we used to do," said Valin, who pointed out it was a very volatile client market.
Still, that's not his biggest fear as a startup for now--instead it is public holidays.
"They really affect business, it's not like Friday is off, it's like for an entire month we get no e-mail," said Valin. He explained company projects typically would typically die down in advance when a holiday approaches, and then take a while to start again.
In order to address that, Valin said the company is scouting for opportunities to expand in the region such as in Indonesia and Australia, and also widen its clientele to more verticals.
Clear roadmap, startup support needed
China and other Asian countries are quite well positioned to exploit 3D printing more than Singapore is, and eventually offer cheaper alternatives, said Gibson.
"The real benefit, the real way that Singapore can exploit this, is actually use 3D printing as part of the [business] culture, " added the associate professor, who noted there were not many companies offering value-add solutions in 3D printing, such as engineering consultancy or catering to specific industries.
Echoing those sentiments, Valin said fostering an ecosystem where companies incorporate 3D printing into product development will also help create an ecosystem and sustainable economy.
Gibson pointed out a clearer roadmap for the industry was important for Singapore. "3D printing can be embodied in a lot of different ways, we need a clear statement to say what it is that we should be focusing on, this is where we are going to be focusing on, about what we should be going; how many workers to train; are we going to be supporting an innovative 3D printing culture, or are we going to be focusing on highend verticals, aerospace, or medical."
So far the industry development has been very bottom-up, Gibson noted, so it would be important to look at how to support innovative startups.
According to Valin, subsidies for utility bills may go some way, with electricity costing 10 times more in Singapore than places like Canada, noted the founder of Prototype Asia. Valin added the price of materials in Singapore was already higher by about 20 percent than in the United States and Europe.