3D Printing in Japan: OPENCUBE's SCOOVO C170 Enters the Race


Way back when, the term “additive manufacturing” described a process little known outside of that industry, and Japan was actually on the forefront of that tech. Over time, Japan sort of vanished from the market, but now that we all know the much sexier term “3D printing,” Japan’s back.

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3D Printing Finally Coming (back) to Life in Japan
Among the truly groundbreaking and occasionally astounding achievements in 3D printing around the world, the phrase “...based on a new device made and/or designed in Japan” occurs almost not at all. When Japan does make 3D printing news, it’s most likely accomplished with a machine and technology from the United States or Europe.

See, while the rest of the world was powering forward, tech giant Japan had decided that, rather than mess around with printing, making 3D TVs and the Nintendo 3DS was more fun. In the meantime, the U.S. swallowed up 70% of the commercial 3D printer market, Germany grabbed a 15% share, add China’s 3% and a handful of other non-Japanese makers, and based on 2012 estimates from industry analyst Wohlers Associates, Japan is left with 0.3% of the global 3D printer market.

Related: Japan's 3D Printing Industry: Leapfrog, Not Catch-Up, is the Game to Play

At long last, this reality has come to distress government tech incubators, most prominently METI, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (3D printing dominates September’s newsletter), and they’ve now taken to actively promoting and encouraging renewed investment and R&D. Private tech firms, keen to avoid being left out of the profit and prestige of yet another burgeoning market (E.g., Apple & Samsung own Japan’s smartphone market), have also started taking action.

Last weekend, as our Facebook followers know, AkihabaraNews attended a demo/launch event of sorts. In a semi-formal yet comfortable and intimate conference room in... Akihabara!, we spoke with product reps and met Mr. Nobuki Sakaguchi, President and CEO of entirely Japan-based and financed 3D printing venture OPENCUBE Co., Ltd. (event gallery here)

Though months behind American firm 3D Systems in bringing a consumer printer to the Japanese market, Mr. Sakaguchi and his team seem confident and excited, and they should be - they’re about to offer Japan’s first homegrown consumer 3D printer to retail outlets. Here’s what they’ve got:

The SCOOVO C170 3D Printer
Beginning with the small-scale desktop device pictured above (gallery), OPENCUBE aims to get a foot in the door and gradually win over the personal 3D printer market - they’re starting with a rather bold move: with little to no name recognition, in a market where the potential consumer base is kind of unknowable, OPENCUBE is putting onto shelves a nearly $2000 product that needs a continuous supply of raw materials, and, in all likelihood, no small amount of tech support.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: At this time, OPENCUBE has yet to to go public with their announcement; not that it’s a secret: as stated above, they’re putting the SCOOVO into retail stores. When, where, and to what extent, however, remains in question.)

Already available online, the SCOOVO is actually early to the (relatively very late) Japanese game; with a strong retail push, OPENCUBE hopes to leverage a major role in the reinvigoration of Japan’s domestic 3D printer industry and put Japan back on the map as a maker of the machines. Will it work? Well, while there definitely is an interest in 3D printers here in Japan, and people do have a lot of disposable income, it remains unclear whether or not Japanese consumers will spend, and only time will tell.

But for those who do take the plunge, the SCOOVO C170’s 404×376×333mm printing area will produce whatever they can imagine by flash-melting and additively applying polylactide, also known as polylactic acid, also known as organic plastic with, located next to this shiny shield:

...a single high-precision print nozzle:
...which can turn this:
...into stuff like this:
...or, you know, whatever customers dream up to to print whole, or print and put together piecemeal. Speed and super exacting precision, it should be noted, are not on the menu. A single piece can take well over 2 hours to print, and while the SCOOVO can dial down a 0.1mm resolution, when aggregated, the finished product isn’t exactly seamless. The phone cases below, for example, appear fine at a distance, and they do fit clean and snug on the iPhone 5, but with a closer look it’s clear that room for improvement remains:


These points, however, are far from damning criticism. This is a first generation product, and while imperfectly so, we should bear in mind that what it can do - in one’s own home and at a price point equivalent to a high-end personal computer - was entirely impossible just a few years ago.

Prototyping or proof-of-concept machining used to take weeks, if not months, and required detailed knowledge of material properties, proficiency in complicated CAD software, a whole glossary of jargon, time spent making trustworthy professional connections - and, of course, paying for all of that.

With the SCOOVO C170, you can prototype a new part, gadget, or gizmo in an afternoon. That’s a pretty big deal. Here’s what OPENCUBE’s printer looks like in action:

(see our event gallery here)

So, Why SCOOVO Instead of the ‘Cube’ and ‘Cube X’ from 3D Systems?
OPENCUBE cites a number of factors that, in sum, put their product on par with those of foreign makers in all important features, and even exceed them in a few. Their big bullet points include:

  • Green Tech: SCOOVO’s internal structure is easily recyclable, their organically based PLA filament is less toxic and effusive than the more commonly used ABS, and the device as a whole is designed to require less operating energy. (recent studies have also pointed out how usage of 3D printers lessens environmental impact)

  • Attractive Styling: well, not a huge issue, but they do have a point - a lot of 3D printers are a bit... gangly. In a boxy sort of way. Also: color options!

  • Ease of Use - Equipment, Setup, and Software: OPENCUBE says its print head, the nozzle, is designed to be much less prone to clogging, and easier to clean if need be. Connecting to the printer is as easy as plugging in a USB cable to any modern PC. Also, once your design is squared away and ready to print, preferences are set with a familiar pop-up window interface commonly used with paper printers.

  • One Year Warranty: Brand new, relatively untested product; we hope they’ve got tech support standing by.

The last factor, something OPENCUBE is very eager to mention at any opportunity, is probably the greatest advantage of all: being here, living here, working here, and natively understand the mindset of the Japanese consumer. Not that 3D Systems can’t hire capable Japanese representatives, but they definitely cannot say:

  • Made in Japan: Repeatedly pointed out in the marketing materials, often accompanied by something along the lines of “Unlike foreign brands, our manuals and software are in Japanese!,” for a consuming public largely unversed in the minutiae of 3D printers and their features & capabilities, this point is probably OPENCUBE’s biggest hook in the domestic market.

And that last bit, well, it is a fair point, and it would serve OPENCUBE well to remain clearly and acutely aware of WHY that’s become a selling point for their product, i.e., until now, Japan has totally missed the 3D printer boat, and as a result, consumers here finally understand how Americans in the early to mid-1980s felt when all those Japanese VCRs started arriving stateside with instruction manuals written by the human equivalent of a beta Google Translate.

Just remember, Americans tolerated unreadable Japanesese-made VCR instructions because Japanese-made VCRs were awesome, and American-made VCRs weren't really... in existence, or were just terrible.

Further Totally Unsolicited Advice to OPENCUBE:
It’s a good starting point, but don’t rest on that “a Japanese product for Japanese people” point for too long; the market here is potentially quite large, but it's definitely not impenetrable, and foreign makers won't hesitate to supply superior products, give consumers what they want, and push domestic makers such as yourselves to the margins. Once again, three words: Smartphones; Apple; Samsung. We’d prefer not invoke that tired parable when covering your products in a few years’ time.

So there you have it, some of the baby steps in Japan’s re-entry in the 3D printer market. Best of luck to Mr. Sakaguchi and his team - we look forward to covering your next product launch.

Jump to the gallery for a look at OPENCUBE's event, and some up-close 3D printing:



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References: Wohlers Associates; Kurzweil AI; and AkihabaraNews.com!
Images: OPENCUBE; AkihabaraNews.com



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