Feb 18, 2013 04:51 PM

China's 3D Printing: Not a Revolution – Yet


(Beijing) -- Engineers, inventors and industrial futurists in China are setting sights on a new technological frontier as three-dimensional printing slowly revolutionizes manufacturing.

A Beijing University research team, for example, has been working on what industry sources say is a breakthrough technology that uses 3D printing to produce large, complicated aircraft components.

The team led by materials science and engineering Professor Wang Huaming in January won a national award from the State Council for technological achievement.

The recognition for Wang's team and its work has encouraged companies in 3D printing-related businesses. Many have seen their stock prices surge to new highs in recent months.

Like a skilled sculptor, a 3D printing system can build through a materials-layering process a fully shaped and solid object, model or component based on a designer's computerized instructions.

Theoretically, this type of system could be used to build a plane, car or even a human organ. Some forecasters predict 3D printers will be making home-cooked meals by 2020.

In reality, though, the systems have limited applications. Wang said that for now the technology can only supplement traditional manufacturing.

"It's too early to say" whether it will usher in a revolution for manufacturing, said Wang.

Printing Objects

The technology for 3D printing first appeared in the United States in the 1980s when Charles Hull invented digital computer equipment that could be used to make models with synthetic resins. He called the process "stereolithography."

Based on Hull's work, scientists later developed techniques called Fused Deposition Modeling and Selective Laser Sintering for wider applications. Then in 1993, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Michael Cima and Emanuel Sachs patented a practical 3D printing system.

That set off a worldwide race to commercialize 3D printing technology, leading to a variety of creative applications. As a result, the process has been used in Britain to make special footwear for soccer players and in Belgium to craft a replacement for a woman's jaw.

Last year, according to 3D authoring solution provider 3D Systems Corp., the U.S. Air Force invested US$ 2.95 million in the company on 3D printing procedures for aircraft components and weapons systems.

Chinese engineers started exploring the potential for 3D printing in the late 1980s, after U.S. technology was introduced to China by Yan Yongnian, a mechanical engineering professor at Tsinghua University.

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