Taiwan Seeks Dominance In 3D Printing. Will Its Plan Stand Up?
Taiwan, the world’s high-tech contractor since the 1980s, wants to lead the next consumer electronics trend instead of designing it for someone else. That shift would make local brands more competitive globally as offshore rivals chip away at contract work. So Taiwan is moving to become the world’s top developer of 3D printing technology. Here’s its plan to come from behind and dominate one of the world’s fastest growing tech trends:
A government-backed tech incubator has formed an alliance of 90 local companies keen on working with one another on 3D printers, the printing stock and related software. The Industrial Technology Research Institute is also offering to pay up to 40% of company proposals to develop object printing, which it identified in 2013 as a mission for the next eight years.
3D printed blue treefrogs in different layer thicknesses (Photo credit: Creative Tools)
Object printing first materialized decades ago, based largely on open-source software. It grew popular after 2010 as prices fell and everyday people started popping out self-designed lampshades and washing machine parts. DIY kits with the printers and stock (ink plus a lot more) sell today for as little as $200. Tablet PCs grew on a steep curve over the same period, but China is taking away Taiwan’s piece of that trend.
But developers in China, Japan, Europe and the United States are working now as hard as Taiwan, probably harder and with more research breakthroughs. That international rivalry makes sense as American tech consulting firm Wohlers Associates says the 3D printing market grew 28.6% to $2.2 billion in 2012 after jumping nearly 30% in 2011.
Companies in Taiwan could still beat the others on their traditional strengths of speedy, customized production. The 90 alliance members must form an efficient supply chain and share knowhow rather than standoffishly compete per the Taiwan tech industry’s tradition, argues Jon Hsu, executive director of the research institute’s southern region campus. “Like the United States has defense and China has automotive, Taiwan has consumer electronics. We have the technology and now the direction,” Hsu says. Then there’s Taiwan’s reputation for build-it-fast flexibility. “You make a call and get a cup of coffee, and before it gets cold you get the job done,” Hsu says.
Unlike overseas, in Taiwan it’s hard to name the top object printing investors. Taiwan’s VIA Technologies is working on a board that could function as a 3D printing controller and Voltivo Group is developing what Managing Director Oliver Fueckert calls a “secret sauce” for high-end printing stock.
It’s going to take more than that. “Obviously the government needs to come on board,” Fueckert says. “This is something where Taiwan has all the ingredients for success.”
Innovation may need a boost first. The island has an advantage in metal printing, Hsu says, but it should tap other countries for intelligence on plastics printing. To generate new ideas locally, the incubator will fund 3D printing proposals that help bring what it called in a Jan. 6 news release a “wave of domestic investment in new technologies and new industries in Taiwan.” Otherwise Taiwan will earn a global name for copying the original designs of other people’s latest schemes to copy objects.