3D printing firms are sprouting, and a recent seminar on the subject has drawn a warm reception. The buzz about 3D printing is so palpable that some quarters are touting it as a threat to traditional manufacturing.
But those who know the technology better say that the capacity to produce three-dimensional objects out of a digital blueprint is unlikely to displace mass production.
Collin Wilkerson, the managing director of Western Tool & Mold, which comes up with "total plastic solutions" for the aerospace, medical, electronic, industrial and speciality industries, said that 3D printing complements rather than replaces traditional manufacturing.
"It is an extension of the selection of solutions we can offer to customers. We are not competing against lower-cost fields and large-scale manufacturing lines," he said.
3D printing technology, carried out using a materials printer and digital technology, has been used to create items ranging from screws and an acoustic guitar to - controversially - a working gun. These objects are made by fusing layers of materials made from durable plastics and metals, based on templates designed with 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software.
But while it is technically possible to use 3D printing know-how in large-scale manufacturing, its limitations include high costs, the small size of objects that can be produced and its problems in matching the output that assembly lines are capable of.
Nonetheless, technology research firm Gartner has projected that end-user spending on 3D printers this year will hit US$412 million, up 43 per cent from last year. It also expects 3D printing to make a splash in the consumer products, industrial and manufacturing sectors. Fields such as architecture, consumer technology, aerospace, automotive and medicine have begun to tap this technology.
In Singapore, the Economic Development Board (EDB) has identified 3D printing as the next development that could transform the country's manufacturing sector. It has set aside $500 million over the next five years for its Future of Manufacturing programme in support of the use of 3D printing technology in manufacturing.
EDB spokesman Chan Kaimin said: "We see emerging global trends in disruptive technologies and business models that will redefine the manufacturing landscape globally.
"With 3D printing technologies, manufacturing plants may be able to produce complex and unique products, which would not be possible through conventional means."
He added that Singapore could become an advanced manufacturing hub, from where companies centrally manage their regional production operations.
Despite some current limitations, specialists in the field are optimistic that 3D printing can plug important gaps in manufacturing that large-scale production has trouble filling.
Jonathan Jaglom, the general manager for the Asia-Pacific for Stratasys, a global leader in 3D printing, said that the technology enables the "printing" of end-use parts that would otherwise be impossible to manufacture because of the geometry and complexity of these parts.
But the technology is useful only for short-series productions, where the low output is not an issue, making it suitable for highly customised products, he said.
He added that no expert worth his salt in the 3D printing space would say that 3D printing will supplant mass-production traditional technology.
Assistant professor Yeong Wai Yee of the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), said: "3D printing is not just a fabrication process, but a vehicle to bring forward a new value stream or new process chain. A long and automated production line is shrunk to an individual 3D printing system because products can be printed as a whole without post-assembling."
This paves the way for a focus on high value-added manufacturing, with emphasis on effective and high-quality design, said assistant professor Ian Gibson of the National University of Singapore's Engineering Design & Innovation Centre.
"It shortens the time to market, even to the extent that it can become a manufacturing process in its own right, given the correct circumstances. It is versatile and scalable in a way that allows a business to start making money in a small way and then expand as the business develops."
Local firms are starting to take advantage of 3D printing to transform their industry. In dentistry, for example, the T32 Implant Centre here has invested nearly $400,000 on the technology, a sum that includes the cost of equipment that prints out implant guides used in dental procedures. The equipment promises greater precision and accuracy, minimising the risk of hurting the patient's nerves during dental procedures.
Lam Joon Khoi, the secretary-general of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation, said: "The rate of adoption by manufacturers depends on the cost-effectiveness of using the technology, as it is still very new, with significant cost involved."
He said that he does not expect market adoption here to be high initially. More awareness and understanding of the technology is still needed among local manufacturers.
The EDB said that it is working on building a 3D printing industry ecosystem by attracting printing equipment makers, software vendors and contract manufacturers to set up business along the value chain.
NTU's Prof Yeong said that technical challenges and regulatory issues also stand in the way of encouraging the use of 3D printing technology.
"Guidelines are needed to compare the performance of different printing processes and to specify procedures for calibration."
He added that it is pointless for companies to just replace their conventional machines with 3D printers: "The true value of 3D printing is in revolutionising the process chain. The return on investment will be justified only if the technology is well-understood."