3D printing has the potential to bring about savings in labour and smarten up logistics in Asia, but it will require a rethink of the entire manufacturing process--from design to product delivery. If properly harnessed, the technology can enable on-demand production, enabling components to be printed only when needed, and consume less material to build a complete product.
3D printing already is seeing robust growth globally including Southeast Asia, said Koh Kong Meng, HP Inc's Southeast Asia Korea managing director, but he declined to provide specific growth figures for the region. Worldwide, he said the vendor was working with partners such as BMW and Nike as well as other major manufacturing design companies, including BASF, to explore printing techniques and materials that could be tapped for 3D printing.
In Singapore, HP last October launched a research facility with Nanyang Technological University (NTU) that focused on digital manufacturing technologies and 3D printing. Opened with a US$84 million investment, the HP-NTU Corporate Innovation Lab was the US vendor's largest university research partnership worldwide and first for the Asian region.
The facility is supported by a team of 100 researchers and staff, and will focus its efforts on digital manufacturing technologies--specifically, 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, new materials and applications, cybersecurity, and customisation. Amongst its research projects was the development of bioprinting models for the printing of viable tissues, and tapping AI to help printers predict and resolve issues autonomously.
Koh told ZDNet in an interview that HP was focusing on key verticals such as automotive and healthcare, including orthotics, to identify how 3D printing can be applied. A consulting firm in Japan, for instance, is assessing the use of the technology to facilitate the printing of spare parts, for the automotive and consumer electronics markets, only when they are needed by the customer.
Pointing to its potential in China and Singapore, he said the Singapore government had put in place its "smart manufacturing" or "Industry 4.0" plans, which aimed to develop an advanced manufacturing ecosystem that combined machines with technologies such as data analytics and AI to create a "smart factory".
However, Koh noted, a rethink of the entire manufacturing processing would be required to support such efforts. "The whole process will have to change," he said. "Today, for instance, we teach engineers about reducing a piece of material into the part we need. But, 3D printing is about adding layers until you get the part you need. It's a different process."
He added that every key component in the supply chain and logistics also would need to be reassessed. Because 3D printing could facilitate distributed manufacturing, he said big manufacturing plants would no longer be needed.
Koh said: "[Instead], we can have a farm of 3D printers that can print the parts or products you need, when you need it. That's the utopia of smart manufacturing. Imagine [what that means] for supply chains. There's tremendous savings in freight and you can design products from ground zero that are strong but [require] less material."
3D printing also would reduce the need for labour cost where different moving parts, for instance, could be printed without having to manually put the parts together. In addition, he said, product customisation could be easily offered for free with 3D printing, compared to traditional production.
He noted that through the partnership with NTU, HP hoped to help build up the necessary capabilities in the industry and train a next generation of engineers "to think in 3D".
Looking for SEA growth in A3
Apart from 3D, HP also is betting on the A3 copier market for growth.
Koh said its 2017 acquisition of Samsung Electronics' printer business for US$1.05 billion had significantly boosted its market footprint in Southeast Asia, pushing its A3 market share to 10 percent, up from its previous single-digit figure.
Noting that the global A3 market was worth an estimated US$55 billion, he said such acquisitions helped pave the way for HP to address this space, where it previously neither had the products nor intellectual property to do so.
In addition, more than three years after it split into two entities, HP now was much smaller, leaner, and more focused, Koh said, adding that the move had enabled the company to make decisions it might not have been able to do so as a larger company, such as the acquisition of Samsung's printer business.
The split also allowed HP to invest in the development of new products that would appeal to consumers and experiment with new materials and colours as well as new market segments such as games, he said.
Asia-Pacific, including Japan, was HP's fastest growing region in its fiscal fourth quarter, clocking a growth rate of 17 percent year-on-year. In comparison, HP grew 6 percent in the Americas and 13 percent in EMEA. Asia-Pacific accounted for 22 percent of the vendor's global business.
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