Giving a lift to 3-D printing

A new Government initiative will invest $500 million over five years to boost Singapore's skills in advanced manufacturing, including in the rapidly emerging 3-D printing industry.

One aim of the Future of Manufacturing (FoM) programme announced in last month's Budget is to create a 3-D printing sector to encompass everyone from printer operators to software designers and equipment sellers.

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said then that 3-D printing was one of two types of technological advancements that are changing global manufacturing and that Singapore needs to be involved.

Robotics was the other technology highlighted.

A 3-D printer rapidly produces solid objects by building up successive micro-layers of material, typically plastic or metal-based.

The process has made major advances in recent years and now complex products such as life-like artificial body parts for medical study to cars can be designed on a computer and "printed".

A key focus of the $500 million funding will be to upgrade skills among workers, said Mr Julian Ho, assistant managing director of the Economic Development Board, which will oversee the programme.

This would include training engineers to oversee and employ 3-D printing in manufacturing.

Mr Ho told The Straits Times that the EDB will also be "exploring the potential of building a new 3-D printing industry ecosystem".

This would facilitate firms designing and providing printing equipment, selling 3-D imaging, processing software and carrying out direct commercial manufacturing using the printers.

These would provide good career opportunities for Singaporeans and "capture growth opportunities in the future, such as the possibility of 'mass customisation'", said Mr Ho.

This is where 3-D printing produces complex and unique products otherwise impossible with conventional manufacturing means.

Aerospace and biomedical sciences are likely to see the first results of the investment in 3-D printing, he added, leading to higher efficiency and reduced reliance on production workers.

The EDB hopes to release final details about the Future of Manufacturing initiative by the end of the year.

Companies that have already started employing 3-D printing technology hope some of the funds will go towards training subsidies and procurement grants.

"The equipment is currently pretty expensive to import, and it'd be good for the industry's research and development, as well as for small and medium-sized enterprises like us if the Government could help make it more affordable," said Mr Mark Lim, managing director of 3D Matters, a six-month-old start-up.

Mr Lim, who bought a $100,000 printer last year with the help of a private investor, said a 14 kg tin of the composite powder he uses costs about $3,000.

Mr Benoit Valin, director of Prototype.Asia, another 3-D printing firm, said the initiative "will open doors for manufacturing" here.

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