Japan's 3D Printing Industry: Leapfrog, Not Catch-Up, is the Game to Play
Japan was all over the infancy of 3D printing, but in decades since, J-R&D has kinda missed the boat. Unlike the smartphone boat a few years back, they clearly see this one leaving shore, and with a bit of technological leapfroggery, hope to jump back to the fore.
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Anything, Anytime, Almost Anywhere
While the technology is over 25 years old, over just the past 5-10 years or so, 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has advanced to become one of the most justifiably oh-my-god/can’t-believe-it’s-real/gee-whiz technologies in the human arsenal - there isn’t a week that goes by without news of some paradigmatically disruptive feat of rapid prototyping, or a new recipe for an open-source 3D printable robot, or 3D printable 3D printers, or very recently, the printing of biological matter from edible meat to implantable/attachable body parts - even near-functional mammalian organs. Star Trek replicators they aren’t, but “Computer, make me an apple pie and a new shirt and an extra finger” doesn’t seem quite as far away as it did just a few short years ago.
But Then There’s Metal...
Most commercial and in-development 3D printing devices work with plastics, plaster-ish stuff, or bio-jelly stem-cell goo, and relatively speaking, given their more malleable raw materials, those have been a bit easier to get up and running.
“3D Printing with Metal is Hard!”
Yes, that’s probably the best engineering geek/hard-rock crossover t-shirt slogan of the modern era, but it’s also a 10-ton pun-hammer that crushes right down to the truth. There are methods in place and even commercial systems in use, but like the aforementioned seemingly-sci-fi flesh printers, systems capable of laying down metal are the kind of super-advanced, super-expensive, laser-powered setups exclusive to laboratories of organizations and institutions with obscene piles of R&D money - and most of them are in Western Europe. Belgian firm LayerWise, for example, makes implantable spare parts for the human body - here’s 37 goofy seconds that nutshell the process for a human jawbone:
The tech is advancing, but it’s not exactly proliferating. Large-scale 3D printing with metal remains impractical, lacks sufficiently consistent precision, and obviously isn’t cost effective enough to be used for manufacturing in significant quantities.
...for now, that is.
And Then There’s 3D Printing in Japan...
Japan does in fact have a sprinkling of 3D printers doing some prototyping, some hardcore yet obscure science, and other light stuff. Last month, consumer electronics giant Yamada Denki even begin stocking consumer models at a few locations. Perhaps most famously though, here in Japan you can get your very own 3D-printed mini-me - that is, if you’ve got the cash and requisite levels of sociopathic narcissism (see video below).
As for the non-creepy-doll-making commercial side of things, regarding the actual manufacturing of 3D printers themselves, Japan’s market share sits at about 0.3%. Soooo, let’s just go ahead and say Japan has approximately none of the global market. This is the issue at hand - though a global tech leader for decades, Japan has next to zero footprint in a high-tech industry that is currently valued at around $2.3 billion U.S., that has been growing by at least 25% per year for the past three, and that has an estimated potential value of $20 billion. Japan’s absence is a bit embarrassing, but that’s finally getting some attention from J-government and industry.
To get back in the game, or rather to just get into the game, Japan wants to go metal - that’s the springboard - and if successful, it could alter the whole landscape. Because the thing is, as previously mentioned, most 3D metal printing is happening in Europe, so while the U.S.'s 70-75% market share is daunting, the metal-printing sector is a bit more accessible.
Moreover, given that the most effective means of 3D printing with metal involves the melting and fusing of fantastically thin, extremely fine powder layers, and Japan’s already got some really sexy metal powerderfying technology, with some aggressive, yet careful and creative investment they're actually rather well-positioned to get on the team and start scoring points.
Private Japanese interests and governmental agencies like METI, the Ministry of Energy, Technology, and Industry are calling for commercial and academic institutions to throw their collective brain power toward the development of homegrown, so-called “Next Generation” devices - 3D printers that go beyond prototyping, proof of concepting, and personalized Barbies and instead set up a presence in the large-scale, mass-production manufacturing of metallic components and finished goods. Rather than treading water as a 3D printing industry spectator and consumer, Japan could become a creator and provider of 3D printing tech, be part of the push toward what many see as an impending global manufacturing revolution, and, naturally, get lots and lots and lots of cash.
And that cash is going to be needed. Building and leading a burgeoning global robotics industry is going to serve Japan well, but creating new or significantly expanding upon existing economic paradigms will also be essential to maintaining the country’s economic prosperity. In the coming decades, tens of millions of Japan’s now very rapidly aging consumers will cease... consuming; it’s a mathematical inevitability that the country will lose 30%+ of its citizenry over the next 50 years. New economic models are not just a good idea, they’re existential imperatives.
And so, Japan’s Getting the Word Out to its Citizens and the World...
Almost every page of METI's August/September journal is covered with 3D printing stuff (linked below, in Japanese/日本語), they’ve got a mountain of cash to throw at development (as China and the U.S. and Singapore and tens of other countries are already doing), and they hope to begin actual development of “Next-Gen 3D Metal Printers” early as next year (2014).
We should take them seriously. If for no other reason than the fact that Japanese government agencies are not well-known for putting a whole lot of funding or energy into the visual design of... most things. But this PDF:
...well, contrast that to METI’s website (here). Seriously, that 2004 GeoCities-esque gem, that is the publically accessible digital presence of one of the most powerful and effective science & technology R&D incubators on earth. So obviously, that the PDF is so beautifully put together means Japan is serious about 3D printing, right? Well, no. But still, kinda.
For the time being now, Japan’s got a handful of large-scale machines, a few 3D printer manufacturers and buyers, some small consumer models are on sale, and then of course there’s the printing of photorealistic dolls (media darling Danny Choo goes through the process below). But, most of that is done with machines purchased abroad.
“MADE IN JAPAN” stamped on the latest gotta-have-it supertech 3D metal printer, one capable of churning out 1000 photorealistic titanium Danny Choos in a single day, or, yeah okay, perhaps aircraft or marine diesel engine components - that’ll bring Japan up to speed.
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Sources: Yomiuri Online (Japanese/日本語); CNBC; MyNavi (Japanese/日本語); Wohlers Associates; Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry PDF (Journal Freely Available for Readers & Mobile Devices - Japanese/日本語)
Images: AkihabaraNews.com; METI