3D printing technology is progressively advancing and becoming more professional since the first commercial 3D printer became available in 1986. The technology is not only used in the business sector, but also employed in medicine, aeronautics, military and construction, etc. It is even crowned the industrial revolution of the new century.
Ho Koon-wan: 3D Printing Evolves with Broad Application and Enormous Scale
3D printing – the advanced rapid prototyping technology invented in the 1980s and gained popularity in the 1990s – is not only broadly applied on mold production, industrial design, plastic surgery and other areas, but also constantly evolving. According to global industrial estimation, the scale of the worldwide direct market that covers 3D printers, printing materials and various software designs and so forth would reach USD 22 billion by 2028. To capture these opportunities, Hong Kong should step up its efforts in training relevant talents.
Currently, Hong Kong is the Asian leader in the application of 3D printing technology. Yet, as Ho Koon-wan, Vice Chairman of Hong Kong 3D Printing Association (HK3DPA) noted, neighboring countries and locations are vigorously driving the development of the technology to make up for lost ground. If Hong Kong slackens off a little in talent grooming or in promoting application, it could soon lose its edge and be overtaken by other locations.
Advancing towards precision and personalization
“In the past, 3D printing was mainly applied to industrial purposes and used on designing prototypes, particularly in mold-making, to optimize manufacturing projects in factories,” Ho added that with limited types and scopes – from a focus on passive mass OEM production in the past to subsequent ODM and producing for consumption industries such as jewelry and service design – Hong Kong’s industrial sector has failed to offer room for breakthroughs for 3D printing.
Looking at the future of 3D printing development, Ho thought that the technology would grow towards two main directions: precision and personalization. The two areas can be developed separately or complementarily and are expected to generate significant traction for all sectors in future. “3D printing can be used for rapid prototyping with the help of computer-aided design (CAD) and scanning. Featuring very high geometric precision, the technology is gradually applied in precision industries such as aeronautics, automobiles and the medical sector. Its future is highly promising.”
High efficiency in medical 3D printing
Having joined the Taiwan delegation last year, Ho was particularly impressed with the medical applications of 3D printing, which are commonly seen in surgical support, surgical repair materials and fabrication of surgical aids. “In the scope of surgical aids production, for example, scientists have already achieved success in reproducing parts of human organs using 3D printing. In fact, this is a market with enormous potentials. The 3D printing industry of the Mainland has estimated that the 3D printing medical market would reach the scale of RMB 9.7 billion by 2024.”
In Hong Kong, some international medical schools have already set up their local scientific research bases in recent years. On the other hand, Science Park is also taking actions to attract more research and development institutes to Hong Kong by establishing a medical technology platform. Ho opined that the government should really provide strong support to 3D printing if it is aware of the tremendous financial return of medical 3D printing. It should also ride on the development of 3D printing and integrate it with the strengths of the local economy to generate even more considerable economic benefits.
Strengthening development in 3D printing technology and grooming talent
Ho was glad to see the government’s active promotion of scientific research and development and how it is committed to attract specialists to Hong Kong through the Technology Talent Admission Scheme. He believed the initiatives would have important impact on taking 3D printing technology forward. The authorities should also put more effort in attracting and encouraging tech-oriented manufacturers to land on Hong Kong. With the construction of the new Science Park at Liantang kicked off, it is hoped that limitations such as land supply could be eliminated.
At present, local education institutes are not yet to set up specialisms in 3D printing. Much work is still needed in grooming relevant talents and in developing the technology. In addition to strengthening professional training at universities and tertiary institutes to nurture more talents with knowledge and applicable skills for the industry, Ho also hoped the authorities could introduce 3D printing and application courses to primary and secondary schools. He compared the suggestion with the promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, explaining that the early exposure to 3D printing could help the younger generation build a solid foundation and inspire young children to become interested, thus, unleashing their potentials to equip themselves and be prepared to engage in the industry in future.
Chen Shih-Chi: Nanoscale 3D Printing Brings Benefit to Medicine
At the end of last year, Chen Shih-Chi, Professor of the Department of Mechanical and Automation Engineering of Faculty of Engineering of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his team successfully developed the world’s first 3D microscope and nanoscale 3D printer. The creation is expected to further facilitate medical applications such as simulated micro-scaffolds, taking the development of medical technology towards a new milestone.
Chen opined that while 3D printing technology is advancing, companies are often placing more importance on the research and development of technology and products at the commercial level. He also pointed out that scientific research teams at the university are usually hindered by space. However, as the university is not a commercial set up, profit maximization does not have to be their utmost research objective. As a result, the focus can be placed on projects that benefit the general public. For example, the teams could concentrate on developing nanoscale 3D printer with comprehensively upgraded precision and printing speed. Hopefully, this could accelerate advancement in human medicine.
Upgrades in speed and quality
Late last year, the nanoscale 3D printer developed by Chen and his team was honored by “R&D 100 Awards” – often regarded as the “Oscar of Invention”. It was also listed as one of the top 100 innovative inventions of 2018.
Chen explained, “Traditionally, 3D printing technology scans an object, layer by layer, from its bottom towards the top. To address any hollow space in the printed object, supporting materials must be placed in advance, which does not only lengthen the printing time, but can easily cause wastage of materials.” As such, Chen and his team strived to develop a targeted solution and came up with the “Nano-Builder”, which employs digital holography-based scanning and the laser beam shaping technology and successfully broke through the limitations of time, space, flexibility and resolution, etc. The speed and quality of printing have also been enhanced.
Speaking of the unique edge of the Nano-Builder, Chen said that digital holography-based scanning and the laser beam shaping technology, which makes use of random-access scanning, allows tens of laser foci to simultaneously write structures at 22.7 kHz (i.e. at a frequency of 22,700 times per second). Comparing with the traditional point-scanning-based systems which scan and build layer by layer, the scanning speed is improved as much as 100 times. Besides, unlike the general quality and precision issues of multi-focus scanning, the Nano-Builder can print items at the nanoscale, i.e. with a precision level up to 1/1000 of a strand of hair, which is only observable using electronic microscopes. The quality of printing is not compromised by the improvement in speed.
An enabler in the development of nano medicine and scientific research
On top of the quality and speedy 3D printing function, the Nano-Builder also works as a medical imaging device and a microscope, Chen highlighted. By replacing the CCD module with a photomultiplier tube (PMT) module, the Nano-Builder can be easily turned into a high performance two-photon excitation microscope with functions of simultaneous real-time imaging, fully extending the 3D random-access scanning technology to the scope of medicine, allowing it to be a research tool for the most elementary biological details. “In the system, femtosecond lasers can precisely stimulate the target cells with submicron precision without affecting the cells around the target. Therefore, it can be used on the safe and reliable long-term researches on brain circuits and specific functions of the brain.”
Chen believes that research outcomes deriving from the Nano-Builder will help develop an even bigger range of nanoscale tools for scientific research and in medicine, including photonic, microfluidic, biomedical, or mechanical structures or devices, all of which will bring about profound impact. “For example, with nanoscale robots made of bio-degradable materials becoming available in future, they can be employed to enter and exit blood vessels and used in minimally invasive surgery or as drug delivery devices. All these would be very helpful in raising the medical standards in Hong Kong and beyond.