3D print­ing re­shap­ing ‘Made in China’

The Pak Banker - - BUSINESS -

The KO­CEL group, an iron and steel foundry in northwest China's Ningxia Hui au­ton­o­mous re­gion, has rein­vented it­self through new tech­nol­ogy. Founded in 1966, the com­pany which was once owned by the state, now uses 3D print­ing for a cleaner, leaner pro­duc­tion process.

"3D print­ing is chang­ing the way foundries op­er­ate, re­vi­tal­iz­ing a process which has ba­si­cally re­mained the same in China for 6,000 years," said Meng Qing­wen, deputy di­rec­tor of the com­pany's 3D print­ing cen­ter.

Tra­di­tion­ally, molten metal is cast into shapes by pour­ing it into a mold, usu­ally made of sand, and wait­ing for it to so­lid­ify. In the past, to make a com­plex shape, tech­ni­cians would break the de­sign down into sim­ple com­po­nents, make tem­plates of each part in­di­vid­u­ally and then com­bine the pieces be­fore go­ing on to make the mold. A 3D prin­ter, on the other hand, can make an in­te­grated sand mold of the most com­plex of shapes di­rectly. With the new tech­nol­ogy, the ac­cu­racy of the cast­ing process has in­creased from 1 mm to 0.2 mm, and the scrap rate has fallen from around 30 per­cent to less than 5 per­cent, Meng said.

A diesel en­gine block, one of the most dif­fi­cult jobs for any iron­works, now takes only one day, com­pared with eight days in the past. Chair­man of KO­CEL Peng Fan, said the group brought 3D print­ing equip­ment from Ger­many in 2012 fol­low­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion. KO­CEL now uses 3D print­ing to make parts rang­ing from a few ki­los to 10 tonnes for Gen­eral Elec­tric, Siemens and other big in­ter­na­tional play­ers.

One of the main ad­van­tages of 3D print­ing is that the process is much cleaner and less la­bor-in­ten­sive than tra­di­tional foundry work. Peng said that some tech­ni­cians who have been freed from their grimy, sweaty work by the tech­nol­ogy have been trans­ferred to tra­di­tional work­shops for the time-be­ing. They are await­ing train­ing for other po­si­tions in the com­pany, like sales and cus­tomer ser­vice.

"In­no­va­tion is not a short-term thing. A com­pany has to con­tin­u­ally in­no­vate to keep alive," Peng said. Apart from foundries, 3D print­ing has also ap­pli­ca­tions across many in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing au­to­mo­biles, elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances, bio­med­i­cine and aero­nau­tics. Lu Bingheng with the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences teaches 3D-print­ing at Xi'an Jiaotong Univer­sity. He claims re­search on 3D print­ing is thriv­ing in China.

Ac­cord­ing to the world in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty or­ga­ni­za­tion, Chi­nese ap­pli­cants ac­count for a quar­ter of world­wide pa­tents in 3D print­ing and ro­bot­ics, mak­ing it the only mid­dlein­come coun­try ap­proach­ing the level of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion of de­vel­oped coun­tries. Lu said 3D print­ing, vi­tal to re­search and de­vel­op­ment of high-end items, will greatly help en­ter­prises.

Af­fected by the global eco­nomic down­turn, many man­u­fac­tur­ers have prob­lems like over­ca­pac­ity, pol­lu­tion and low-end prod­ucts which 3D print­ing can help. Re­search by the McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute found China had per­formed well in cus­tomer-fo­cused and ef­fi­ciency-driven in­no­va­tion, which in­clude con­sumer elec­tron­ics, In­ter­net ser­vices and flex­i­ble man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to McKin­sey, new op­por­tu­ni­ties could con­trib­ute 1 to $2.2 tril­lion a year to the Chi­nese econ­omy, or 24 per­cent of to­tal GDP growth by 2025, if trans­for­ma­tion of man­u­fac­tur­ing con­tin­ues, par­tic­u­larly dig­i­ti­za­tion. How­ever, He Jun of the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sci­ences in­sti­tute of in­dus­trial eco­nom­ics, be­lieves 3D print­ing is only a small fac­tor in China's gi­ant man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try, and it is too early to say if China is head­ing to­ward an "in­tel­li­gent man­u­fac­tur­ing stage."

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