Over the last few years, 3D printing has become an increasingly popular phrase mentioned in line with the coming of a 21st century industrial revolution. A form of additive manufacturing process – where materials, such as living human cells (mixed with biomaterials), plastic, metal and food, are added one layer at a time to create complex designs and products – 3D printing is not exactly new, having been around since the late 1980s. However, it only recently became more portable and cheaper, and hence, more accessible to the public.
For medical professionals, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and industrialists, greater availability means faster translation of ideas to real world products and prototypes. These include developing intricate body parts, toys, tools and complex components of machines, such as those used in automobiles and aircraft, at a fraction of the cost and time used in traditional manufacturing processes such as moulding, forging and sculpting.
Some successful results of this process include Zurich’s Federal Polytechnic University's 3D printed nose cartilage that requires only 16 minutes to create a fully functional replacement human nose, to China's WinSun’s larger effort – 3D printing 10 houses in one day at less than US$5,000 (RM18,339) per house. In February 2015, researchers at Australia's Monash University announced that they created two jet engines, a world first, to show that this technology can be used for large scale, high-quality projects.
In Malaysia, a number of factors have hindered the technology's penetration. One of which is a lack of awareness of the capabilities of 3D printing. Another factor is the learning curve required to use a 3D printer.
However, while awareness about the uses and applications of 3D printing is not as widespread as in Western nations, it has grown significantly in recent times as the private and public sectors have initiated measures to boost appreciation and knowledge of the technology's possible utilisation. A number of private organisations, such as Makespace, regularly hosts events and workshops to increase public awareness.
One way the government aims to accomplish widespread awareness is to attract foreign investors to establish 3D printing manufacturing, servicing and R&D centres in the country. The Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) Executive Director, Datuk Wan Hashim Wan Jusoh noted, “We believe that, promoting the application (3D printing) is the right way to do it (encourage the industry).”
Malaysians are already getting involved. In April, Malaysian digital engineering company DreamEdge and the Kemaman Community College in Taiping collaborated to produce a 3D printed prosthetic arm for a mechanic who lost his right arm in an accident in 2014. In another instance, former English teacher Sujana Mohd Rejab created and donated a 3D printed artificial limb to an eight-year old in Penang – one of more than 200 (which he said cost less than RM100 to make) he has donated in the last 12 months to individuals across Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
That Malaysia should quickly develop its 3D printing industry is crucial, especially as manufacturer of 3D printers and 3D production systems Stratasys predicts that the global 3D printing market will be worth up to US$21b (RM77b) by 2020, with much of the growth coming from Asia. From manufacturing the machines to creating innovative products that can be marketed locally or exported, businesses in Malaysia stand to gain immensely from the rapidly growing 3D printing technology.