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3D printing a gimmick or a marketable tool?

3D printing, which is being hailed as a third industrial revolution, has been charting new territory in areas such as product design, architecture, fashion and education.

What was born as a lesser known industrial technology has gained fame after being developed as a marketable tool by global brands such as Coca-Cola, eBay, Volkswagen and Nokia, who have seized on 3D technology as a marketing gimmick for things such as branded mini Coke bottle models, customised vehicles, and 3D-printed phone cases.

Even e-commerce platform eBay has joined the party to sell custom creations from 3D companies such as MakerBot, Sculpteo and Hot Pop Factory.

Closer to Hong Kong, evidence has shown the technology is on the road with the help of pioneer brands such as adidas’ 3D printing exhibition.

The cartoon figures exhibited at the Harbour City front gate, such as the Doraemon and Rubber Duck stunts, have also benefited from 3D printing technology.

Four months ago, a new company 3D Forge set foot in Hong Kong to bring MakerBot, one of the biggest global 3D printer manufacturers, to the city, being one of the two official resellers of MakerBot 3D printers in Hong Kong alongside Stratasys.

Jeremy Cheng, general manager of 3D Forge, said tapping Hong Kong was based on a vision to develop the budding 3D printing market, despite the enormous challenge to educate local marketers on this relatively new concept.

“Many marketers don’t have a clue of what 3D printing is or don’t acknowledge what benefits 3D printing can bring to their business. My job here is to explain to them how it works. To some extent, it can take a whole day just to educate clients.”

Four months after 3D Forge’s launch, the “magical tool” has earned some big corporate interest from the likes of Li & Fung and Halsall Toys.

He added the company has been approached by PR agencies.

Terry Gou, founder and president of Foxconn Technology Group, expressed denial in the technology by calling it a “gimmick”.

The Taiwanese multinational electronics manufacturing company has been using 3D printing for decades, but it doesn’t alter Gou’s pessimistic forecast for the technology’s future.

He argued 3D printing was not a third industrial revolution since it cannot reach mass production and does not deliver commercial value since the product was not functional.

Cheng admitted 3D printing was not for mass production; however, it had other unique values of efficiency and customisation.

“In the old days, creating product samples took at least a few days, let alone financial costs and accuracy,” Cheng said.

“The 3D printing technology accelerates the process of sample making so as to shorten the manufacturing process. By illustrating the CAD graphic you can easily customise the printing itself, but on top of all, it’s a lower-cost alternative to industrial sample developing.”

Each MakerBot desktop 3D printer has a price tag of HK$20,000 with plastic “ink” costing only HK$300 to HK$500 a box on average.

“It also facilitates corrections on the samples when things go wrong.”

A counter-argument against the dysfunctionality of 3D printing technology, is the invention of food printer, which is able to print edible foodstuff using edible materials.

“For consumers, 3D printing is for creating objects that cannot be found on the market.”

A new cosmetic 3D printer Mink has recently been invented to allow users to print make-up in whatever colour they want.

He said customising products should not be a difficult task for consumers because they could download free digital 3D CAD drawings from a raft of digital model sites.

Google SketchUp is another platform to provide a simpler way for consumers to draw a CAD graphic.

“For many Hong Kong marketers 3D printing is still something magical. My mission is to create a community for the 3D printing business to take off here,” he said.

Photo courtesy to inside3dp

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