3D printing reshaping ‘Made in China’
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."