Whole new dimension in 3D printing

The technology lets designers convert what's in their minds into matter

Mr Winson Kong owns a 3D printer and 3D print items at home to sell, including coasters and reed diffusers. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Hailed as a force in advanced manufacturing, 3D printing has also paved the way for a new breed of startups and entrepreneurs who offer bespoke services from designing customised jewellery to cookie cutters.

One such entrepreneur is 3D artist Winson Kong, who sells 3D-printed household items such as coasters, keychains and decorative owls on crafts website Etsy. He said that the flexibility of 3D printing is one of its main draws.

"It's very easy for us to tweak and change the models in the 3D software, depending on the client's wishes," said the 30-year-old. "I can add a name, or modify the proportions and make it bigger or smaller very easily."

Aside from Etsy, retailers such as Mr Kong are also displaying their wares online through websites like Shapeways or Amazon Handmade, which provide them with a platform to reach shoppers perusing such items.

The ease of selling such designs and the lower costs of 3D printing have led to a global growth of people on such platforms. For example, the number of sellers on Shapeways, which sells only 3D-printed products, increased fivefold, from 7,000 in 2012 to about 35,000 at the end of last year.

And while 3D-printed products often cost more than those mass- produced through traditional methods, consumers are willing to pay for the customised and personalised nature of these items.

Auditor Rasa P., 30, who ordered customised cookie cutters from Bakerlogy for a themed party, said: "The designs are unique and eye-catching. They definitely made the cookies a hit during the party."

A dog bone-shaped cookie cutter that has been personalised with a name on it costs between $10.50 and $37.50, depending on the size.

Customers can get their hands on unique jewellery or crafts fully designed and customised to their liking. Meanwhile, designers and sellers cite low upfront costs and low entry expenses as advantages in starting such a venture, along with the flexibility to print on demand without the need to store inventory.

Since 3D printing can be quite expensive if done on a smaller, less powerful non-industrial 3D printer, most outsource the actual printing to commercial 3D-printing factories here or overseas.

According to Ultra Clean Asia Pacific, which runs the largest commercial 3D-printing facility here in South-east Asia, such requests are becoming more popular, with the firm seeing rising numbers of orders from smaller, individual players.

Its director for business development, Mr Mahendran Reddy, told The Straits Times: "It's fully sustainable, because sellers just create a virtual file on the webpage and print only on demand."

3D printers are able to print crafts, such as decorative home pieces or figurines, in a variety of materials such as plastic, resin and sandstone. The raw material is usually in powder or filament form.

It is a different process for jewellery items, which are not directly printed in the precious metal of the finished product, due to the high cost of metal powder.

Instead, a wax mould in the desired design is 3D printed. It is then cast in plaster, and put over heat to melt the wax so the plaster retains the hollow shape of the design.

Molten metal, such as silver, gold or platinum, is poured into the cast. The plaster is broken off, leaving the final piece of jewellery intact, which is then refined and polished.

Due to the nature of customisation, 3D-printed objects often take a while before they reach the buyer.

The entire process, including shipping the finished product, can take up to three weeks, said multimedia designer Simon Strauss, 32, who has a shop on Etsy.

"It takes quite a while for things to be printed, even when the design is already in the Shapeway server. It takes one to two weeks of production time for each item ordered, and additional shipping time."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline Whole new dimension in 3D printing. Subscribe