Engineers here are using 3D printing to make a drone that's lighter, flies better and powers itself on energy from the sun - three improvements that would be either very difficult or impractical using mainstream manufacturing methods.
That is why 3D printing is being hailed as a force in advanced manufacturing or Industry 4.0, which is set to revolutionise the way goods are produced.
And yet, many people - including those running manufacturing firms - fail to grasp its full potential, says Professor Chua Chee Kai, a global expert in this field and head of the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). 3D printing is "not just about faster or cheaper", he says. "It's about being able to do things that were previously not doable."
The drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) cited above shows how.
Work on it is being done by NTU researchers in collaboration with aerospace and defence conglomerate ST Engineering. They are using a composite material of mainly nylon and ultem, a type of plastic, to make the UAV. 3D printing makes it possible to print the whole UAV using this composite material. Also known as additive manufacturing, it is a process of making three-dimensional parts by adding materials layer by layer.
It is unlike traditional manufacturing where different parts of an end product are made separately using different materials, and the right adhesives have to be found to later join these different parts together.
ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
TECHNOLOGY OF THE FUTURE
Many companies are not familiar with this technology and the potential of what it can do for their businesses. It enables the freedom of design. It's not just about faster or cheaper, it's about being able to do things that were previously not doable.
PROFESSOR CHUA CHEE KAI, who heads the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing at Nanyang Technological University, with a 3D-printed impeller used in the marine, aerospace, and oil and gas industries.
The research team estimates that 3D printing has cut the time it takes to make one of their drones from a month to a week. With 3D printing, the researchers are also able to print electronics directly onto the UAV, so the drone can tap and store solar energy to fuel its flight.
"3D printing," says ST Engineering chief technology officer Fong Saik Hay, "allows for the fabrication of very complex lightweight structures that have the potential to improve UAV performance in terms of aerodynamics, speed and endurance." He adds that "in future, we may even be able to 3D-print UAVs on demand in order to meet specific conditions, something current technologies cannot do".
The additive manufacturing industry is expected to grow from US$3 billion (S$4 billion) in 2013 to over US$21 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020, according to Wohlers Report 2014, an authoritative source on 3D printing.
However, it is not the only technology to disrupt manufacturing. Two other forces are the Industrial Internet of Things, which allows machines to talk to each other, and data analytics, which enables rapid, real-time responses in the manufacturing process. Taken together, these drivers of advanced manufacturing will impact whole industries in a big way, as well as individual firms and workers.
What will be gained and what will be lost in the process?
3D printing has been in use for over 20 years. Early adopters include Boeing, which has since the mid-1990s used 3D-printed plastic parts on its planes and has to date installed more than 20,000 of these parts, says Prof Chua.
In recent years, advances have been made in 3D printing technology for metal parts and industries have started to look at their use. Demand for 3D printing is expected to be strong in the aerospace, defence and medical industries and what drives it is the search for lower-cost, customised products.
US engine maker GE Aviation, for example, has made headlines with its 3D-printed fuel nozzle tip - a product which used to require the assembly of 20 different parts but now can be printed at one go and has been approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
As for medical devices, there are now about 100 printed devices approved for use by the United States Food and Drug Administration. These include hearing aids and cranial implants.
Fast Forward series
'With Singapore firmly focused on the Future Economy, The Straits Times' series, Fast Forward: Disruption and the Singapore Economy, helps you make sense of the big shifts that will shake up entire sectors, reshape jobs and change lives. Every Saturday for 12 weeks, the paper's journalists will examine a disruptive force, its likely impact on the economy and how soon that will be felt. From robotics, 3D printing and smart buildings to dire demographic trends, the global skills revolution and the Asean growth story. Next week, find out more about smart homes and smart cities.
About one-third of the world's hearing aids are made here and leading manufacturer Sivantos Group, which makes the Siemens brand of hearing aids, among others, says 3D printing has been used to make custom-made in-the-ear hearing aids at its Singapore plant since 2003.
With this advance, orders can be processed and shipped within a day. The raw impression of a client's ear can be scanned and modelled digitally and, once confirmed, the image will be sent to the 3D printer and multiple hearing aids printed at one go.
So widespread is 3D printing in Europe and the United States that a 2015 survey conducted by Sculpteo, a French 3D-printing company, found that one in four respondents said 3D printing was used for production, not just prototyping or proof-of-concept purposes. Those polled numbered over 1,000 and included chief executive officers, engineers and designers.
Prof Chua is confident Singapore is poised to follow suit. He predicts that in five years' time, 3D printing will become mainstream in production here. What will help is the large sum of $3 billion that the Government has set aside to build advanced manufacturing and engineering capabilities, under its Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan.
Right now, large companies are taking the lead. Multinational technology and engineering giant Emerson Process Management 3D-prints valve components with designs that might not be possible with traditional manufacturing processes. It plans to start printing such valve components here in the near future.
Valves serve as the "muscle" of a production process, physically controlling the flow of materials, says Mr Ron Martin, Emerson's president for Asia Pacific (Singapore). Better-designed valves help make production processes more efficient.
Chemical company Denka Singapore uses steam to manufacture polystyrene resins. In the past, workers had to monitor the 148 steam traps in use by walking through the facility with a portable tester. Now, a continuous stream of data from sensors on the steam traps is sent to be analysed remotely by equipment experts. Denka's steam consumption has gone down by 7 per cent as a result, an example of how data analytics improves the manufacturing process.
"This allows issues to be detected in minutes, and corrective actions can be recommended faster, before these issues turn into big problems," says Mr Martin of Emerson, which provides remote monitoring services to Denka .
Having a fully interconnected production system gives firms greater control over the scheduling of manpower, inventory and production, says Mr Willson Deng, chief executive of start-up Arcstone, which provides analytics platforms for manufacturers. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), for example, are better able to supply parts to multi- national corporations (MNCs) at the right time, in the right quantity and with better quality control.
Mr Deng, who is also chairman and co-founder of the Singapore Manufacturing Consortium, is hopeful Singapore will create a smart manufacturing ecosystem for the whole industry, a move that "says to MNCs 'come invest here, we have data'".
Over at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC), researchers are working with Sembcorp Marine and the University of Glasgow to tap simulation and modelling of data to design a new water-treatment process for ballast water used to stabilise ships at sea.
The water can carry invasive species such as bacteria and microbes from one part of the world to another, causing ecological problems.
Using data, more accurate models can be built to test products and processes virtually before prototypes are made and end-products manufactured, saving time and money. The models can simulate harsh conditions like those faced by vessels at sea or in the sky to test different scenarios and predict outcomes, says IHPC's executive director, Professor Alfred Huan.
Given the transformative power of the industrial Internet of Things (IoT), a national effort is on to tap into it. Public sector researchers are developing and testbedding manufacturing infocommunications and IoT technologies which could play a critical role in developing Factories of the Future, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) says.
It cites the Manufacturing Control Tower at A*Star's Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology. This tower will deploy IoT and sensor technologies to create a networked production environment, providing manufacturers with a panoramic oversight of the production chain.
IMPACT ON SUBCONTRACTORS
As with any disruptive technology, both data analytics and 3D printing upturn old ways of doing things. Some SMEs that have for years supplied parts to multinationals are at risk of being phased out of the production process when big players at the top of the manufacturing chain shift towards 3D printing.
GE Aviation's move to 3D-print the fuel nozzle tip for planes, for example, led to the phasing out of subcontractors which used to make different parts of the nozzle tip.
That is why government agencies here are hard at work helping local SMEs adapt to this new technology and ride the wave of change. Small firms are unlikely to experiment on their own since a 3D printer can cost millions of dollars, and that is not counting the cost of integrating the printer into the supply chain.
At the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster, SMEs are able to gain access to the industrial printers in local universities without having to cough out the initial investment cost of buying one.
A*Star has also stepped in. It is working with more than 30 MNCs and SMEs, mainly from the aerospace and heavy machinery industries, through its Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre . ARTC provides a platform to testbed smart manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing. It also works with companies to identify their needs and develop new parts to improve their efficiency.
It has, for instance, developed industrial heat exchangers that can be 3D-printed in as quickly as half the time than previously. These exchangers are used to cool oil refineries.
Working with firms here to develop and print such products helps them compete against rivals in the region without having to resort to price cuts, says ARTC technical director Nicholas Yeo. "Using additive manufacturing, local SMEs can compete in the high-value space where they are differentiated based on the products they make," he adds.
MTI is committed to helping firms adapt to the new manufacturing landscape. Continued investments in advanced manufacturing are necessary to maintain the sector's competitiveness and productivity, says its spokesman.
As with any technology-driven disruption, some jobs will be at stake, but Prof Chua points out that "3D printing is complementary to traditional manufacturing most of the time". That's because "as a rule of thumb, 3D printing is most suitable for high customisation but low-volume products, while traditional manufacturing is mostly for high-volume products", he explains.
Besides making production processes in sectors such as precision engineering and tooling more efficient, 3D printing increases business opportunities because of how products with complex shapes and features can be designed and printed, says Dr Ho Chaw Sing, managing director of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster.
And additive manufacturing is unlikely to completely phase out subcontractors. Forward-looking subcontractors who want to stay relevant in their business will always look to invest in the right level of technology so that they can continue to differentiate themselves and service their customers in the right way, says Dr Ho.
Using the example of the video industry, Dr Ho says the reason Netflix has flourished as an on-demand streaming video content business, while Blockbuster is now a defunct brick-and-mortar video rental company which at its peak had 9,000 stores, is that the former had foreseen and adapted quickly to shifts in customers' expectations through product innovation.
"Wherever it makes sense, subcontractors will always be needed," he says. "In order to provide end-to-end additive manufacturing services, these subcontractors will need to assess how to acquire the right level of expertise and infrastructure."
Just as 3D printing allows the manufacture of a product as an integrated whole, and data analytics allows manufacturers oversight over an entire production process, so Singapore is adopting a holistic approach to scaling the heights of advanced manufacturing, with researchers, public sector officers and businesses both local and multinational working together to keep pace with change.
The aim is to ensure manufac- turing as a sector and those who work in it can keep flying high, just like the drone that kicked off this story and which, thanks to new technology, is lighter, faster and can stay in the air for longer.
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