3D Printing New Business Competition in Tohoku Japan

A few weeks ago we proposed a small batch manufacturing business to one of the struggling areas in Japan. We passed the first stage of the competition and a few days we went in to present to a panel of judges about the merits of the business plan.

The basic concept of the business plan was based on two concepts. 1) What Voodoo Manufacturing  is doing 2) The Japanese concept of giving small gifts. The small manufacturing center would be able to turn out around 5000 small plastic objects in a week. We believe this would be a valuable service to venues in Japan that could then offer these customized and branded gifts to their guests for special events. Think, a wedding hall or a sports stadium as the main clients of this business.

Doing the economic calculus of a project like this, I estimated that, on objects like these, transaction costs, on the margin, are reduced by around 300%. I don’t know if this applies to expensive products but I suspect that if it doesn’t yet, it will at some point in the future.

The other interesting thing I learned is that the sweet spot for this business is somewhere between 500-5000 parts. Oddly, doing a single object is a terrible way to make money. Which tends to indicate that a B2C business based around 3D printing has to have a radically different business model. This may also explain why a lot of B2C 3D printing businesses are performing poorly or at very least under expectations.

This whole project seems to be a baby step on a much larger path towards advanced manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing is going to look radically different than traditional economy of scale manufacturing.

What does HP’s 3D Printer Announcement Mean for Japan

HP unveiled its partners for distributing its new series of 3D printer.

By teaming up with HP as the world’s first HP 3D Printing Master Partners, Mutoh and Ricoh will bring best-in-class expertise and knowledge of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology to customers deploying the solutions….HP introduces its award-winning commerical 3D printing solution…Japanese businesses are starting to embrace the transformative potential of 3D printing, a market that saw more than 104 percent in revenue growth from 2015 to 2016, according to data from IDC. Its expected to reach $670 million in sales by 2020.

Not too surprising here, Ricoh and Mutoh have a large sales network, maybe two of the largest in Japan, already in place where they can push the printer into hands of their clients. My guess is that they want to show some quick sales on their books and will introduce a different printer down the road. Having seen the printer at expo, it offers a lot of great advantages, but not nearly as ‘groundbreaking’ as people tend to make it out to be. I also think the price point is very good for small-medium businesses in Japan where it will be on the market for around 30,000,000 JPY + service agreements. Although, I’m skeptical that it will have success in that market because the major challenges tend to be application engineering/how to actually use a 3D printer to make more money for a business.


HP seems to be aware of this issue when they write:

Mutoh and Ricoh are set to collaborate with HP to open a 3D Printing Reference and Experience Center in Tokyo that will showcase the HP Jet Fusion 3D printing solutions and enable deeper engagement with customers.

It is defiantly a step in the right direction a large part of the success will come down to execution. I think the big challenge is that most small-medium businesses in Japan are almost totally ruled by their CFO/finance department and tend to be rather short sighted about adopting new technical solutions. I believe most of this class tends to think that labor costs are cheaper than the technical solution, but that is typically only true on a marginal basis and overtime the whole company suffers and stagnates. Companies that do adopted HP’s solution and take it seriously as a new capability and skill for their company will benefit greatly, but arguments like that are hard to quantify but these sorts of people get nervous when you say not everything can be quantified.

The 104% YoY growth for 3D printing revenue in Japan is totally bogus. Either it is wrong on factual merits or through tortured econometrics. Business 3D printing did grow but probably by 1/3rd of that and the desktop market either stayed the same or shrank. Either way, I don’t think HP will be a big part of that market based on issues with applicability in Japan, but I hope I’m wrong because it does offer a really good solution for some specific business needs.

Automated Additive Construction Survey

A recent paper Automated Additive Construction (AAC) for Earth and Space Using In-situ Resources is a meta snapshot of current thinking about building big stuff off planet (AAC) and is worth a read for anyone interested in the subject of off-planet 3D printing.


Launching mass into space is difficult due to the gravity well of the Earth which requires a
change in velocity impulse (Delta-V) of 9.3 – 10 km/s. This means that complicated space
transportation vehicles must be used to provide a large amount of energy transfer through the use
of chemical rocket propulsion. An additional Delta-V of 6.4 km/s would be required to land this
mass on the surface of Earth’s moon. If in-situ materials could be used on the moon (such as
regolith or regolith derived concrete), to build large civil engineering structures, then large
amounts of mass launched from Earth could be avoided, making space exploration more

More economical should be replaced with economically possible. They somewhat understand the major economic problems facing this field.  At the current rate of $/gram to leave earth, there is no way we will be able to build anything significant off-planet because it would require a significant % of global economic output, which will never happen for political realities.

I was recently discussing with a Japanese acquaintance why Asia doesn’t have a competitive presence in the space. It struck me that the space industry is almost totally based on the standard of infrastructure, both machine and ‘human capital’ and that technology plays a secondary role. When asked why he located Space X in Southern California, Elon Musk’s answer indicated it was because it had the largest pool of space talent. If this is the case then it also means that any efforts for Automated Additive Construction off-planet will fail if they are not sufficiently robust and simple. Which should automatically disqualify several branches of research from consideration. For example, using ionic liquids or phosphoric acid for metal extraction seems incredibly complicated to scale to be of any use.

However, I do like the  Molten Regolith Electrolysis (MRE) method for material extraction due to producing a metal alloy as well as a ceramic slag. It seems, as a general principle, that producing two distinct materials, especially one with favorable ductility, would open many more construction options. Multi-tools are going to be king in space construction for the same reasons an axe is preferable to a rapier for a frontiersman.

Which also leads me to believe that many solutions for space construction and in situ automated additive construction can be found by looking at the ways we overcame similar challenges crossing oceans for the first time or colonizing a virgin land.

It is also interesting to note that despite a clear upsurge in interest for in situ automated additive construction, Gartner doesn’t seem to have included it on their hype cycle anywhere.

The Major Problems with Metal 3D Printing

Recently, and for good reason, metal 3D printing has captured the attention of the industry and public. Although I think both industry and public are unaware of what the major problems/challenges are with metal 3D printing.

  • Cost  of metal 3D printing is prevent adoption. Both the amortization schedule is too long and the per part cost is too high. I believe aerospace and medical are both leading in metal 3D printing because both of the capital costs are per part costs are not primary concerns.
  • Unknown Reliability the thermal history of a part is largely not understood. I’ve talked with researchers who are developing simulations for this exact issue but, realistically, it is largely unknown how the varied thermal history of a single part will impact the reliability of the end part.
  • Perception of Quality Many people will say that the surface finish of metal 3D printed part is a problem. However, this is a non sequitur because the argument is not a binary between 1) Use only 3D printing 2) Do not use 3D printing. Rather, a 3D printed metal part can be finished on the very machines that it is replacing. What I think the public and industry really are concerned about is the perception of quality, parts that have a mirror smooth finish just feel like they should be more well made. This is a marketing challenge rather than a technical challenge because real questions about part quality, such as crystallization and residual stress are almost never discussed.
  • Supply Chain for metal 3D printing is pitiful. If you wanted to go out and buy a metal 3D printer today you would have only one or two local vendors to pick from, in Japan this typically means doing business with a crumbling megalithic company that probably started by innovating the paper industry.  You wont really get a clear answer about long term running costs or technological roadmap which makes the amortization process that much more painful.

When I list all of these in this fashion, I think the critical problem to solve is cost, as it seems to solve the other challenges naturally. If that is true, later this year we could expect to see big adoption of metal 3d printing as costs come down. Seemingly we are on the verge of a metal 3D printing renaissance.

Metal 3D Printing in Japanese Businesses

Metal 3D Printing is becoming a hot topic this year with a handful of new entrants like Markforged, Desktop Metal, Vader Systems, Auroralabs etc. I wanted to examine two of these today from the perspective of business 3D printing in Japan.

Desktop Metal recently made a big announcement about the launch of their first products. They have a studio version and a production version.  The price of studio printer will probably be around 150k USD, I haven’t seen the price of the production version but my guess is at least double that and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is 500k USD or more. You can read the basics on their website. The interesting topics are questions and topics are this:

  • Self Contained Metal 3D printing system
  • Rods vs. Powder
  • Speed on the Production system

3D Printing’s real strength is in distributed and localized manufacturing economics. Contrary to traditional manufacturing which benefits from large centralized fabrication that everyone calls scale.  If we think about the fundamental reasons these things work it is very simple:  raw resources, expensive logistics, capital depreciation, and cheap labor is less than raw resources, cheap logistics, capital depreciation and expensive labor. There are probably a few dozen more significant factors we could put in this but basically, cheap labor trumps cheap logistics and has for the last few hundred years. 3D printing inverts this equation, cheap logistics will beat cheap labor for manufacturing, and we are just at the start of this curve.  So why is an office/personal/studio metal 3D printer interesting? Because it makes it economically viable to localize your small parts production. If small scale production becomes localized, it will signal the general market that globalism is on its way out, investment, research, and entrepreneurship will start pouring into localizing big manufacturing. This process will take decades but it will be the predominate economic theme of the 21st century, contrary to what everyone thinks.

Going back to the first gen (small d, small m) desktop metal 3d printers; success will largely depend on how well they educate people in the applications/usefulness and how reliable the machines will be. If you look at all the successful companies in this space you will notice that all of them spend a significant amount of time on educating their end users on use cases of the machine. Although they are both synergistic; Nvidia needs great video games more than great video games need Nvidia. Reliability will be the benchmark for 3D printers, not finished quality. This is for two reasons:

  1. Part quality varies so widely from design and post processing, it is hard to create a standard.
  2. People expect anything digital to work as well as modern electronics. If a 3D printer is as reliable as a TV, no one will notice. If it is anything less, businesses will consider it immature. A high and unfair benchmark, nevertheless, the real one.

Thomas Modeen and Expanding 3D Printing

Thomas Modeen recently visited Japan on a small tour. I had the chance to hear his insightful talk about 3D Printing and product design.


His product design can be seen in more detail on his site. What Thomas does that is really special is transform his fundamental understanding of 3D printing into real objects. In a way, he is certainly 5 or 10 years ahead of our time.  Even his older designs like the Snakeskin are still fresh.  One interesting point Thomas brought up is how to utilize the waste product from desalination plants, that is, salt, in a way that reminds us of the natural life cycle of buildings and cities. He showed a tower made of salt blocks with a 3D printed scaffold. The idea that it would be slowly eaten away and the blocks could be replaced.

The idea of using a waste product like salt for construction is clever and reminds me of the story of charcoal’s popularization.  But, like the story of charcoal, if we want to see change or actual impact, we have to find a way to make something that is actually useful to other people at a price they can afford. Salt is already being 3D printed into structures and further research on this could help us with being strong salt structures for in situ printing in extreme environments where salt is plentiful.

Mucha, Bach, and Tradition as the Linchpin of Art

It is the good fortune of Tokyo that the Slav Epic arrived recently. Others have done more justice in writing to the beauty of Mucha’s masterpiece, I would only add that to see it in person is a totally different experience than an art book. The physical size of the paintings impart a certain monumental feeling that is appropriate  for the history of an entire peoples.

Although, all is not well at the National Art Center of Tokyo, where the exhibit is being held. Upon entering the Art Center grounds you are greeted by some tress dressed up in polka dots masquerading as Art™. Which is a bit like seeing your chef outside smoking before he cooks your meal at a fine restaurant. Interestingly, Mrs. Kusama’s work covers many of the same subjects as Alfons Mucha. The juxtaposition between the two made me recall an old recording of Glenn Gould speaking about Bach’s work.



Like, Bach, Mucha’s Slav epic was thought, or perhaps still is thought, to be outdated by many. While Mrs. Kusama enjoys significant popularity in her current time for her “straightforward” expressions, Mucha was arrested for being a reactionary. Which begs the question of who is actually more straightforward, after all, people don’t get arrested for being too opaque. Keith Haring is another good example of Japan’s obsession with art and artists that on the surface seem edgy or “straightforward” but essentially just mirrors their own obsequiousness. Also contrast the subject matter, of these two types Bach and Mucha vs. Kusama and Haring, the work of the former is almost totally devoted to the greatness of their god and countrymen and the later is effectively public masturbation, just count how many times “I” is used when describing their art.

Because of this, art that attempts to break the rules and channel modernity and fashionable sentiment chains itself to contemporary sentiment. Which, by useful definition, is not art. This also explains why it doesn’t seem to endure very long. In failing to transcend the everyday concerns, these so-called artists have failed to create anything meaningful.

Mucha’s Slav Epic seems to me to be a celebration of tradition and is therefore able to gift the viewer with a perspective above and beyond their own everyday life, that is what makes it beautiful.

3D Printing Titanium on Boeing 787

Norsk Titanium recently announced

Norsk Titanium to Deliver the World’s First FAA-Approved, 3D-Printed, Structural Titanium Components to Boeing

Unfortunately there aren’t many technical details available but this does seem to be related to reducing costs of the production costs of the 787 by around 2-3 million USD. The not so salient point here is that both companies have setup of a 3D printing pipeline that can go from concept to production in a year’s time. In Japan, that would be an impossible task. It also means that they can continue to redesign any titanium or metal part on the aircraft and leverage 3D printing to reduce weight or cost. I suspect this type of activity will percolate down to the automotive industry as metal 3D printing becomes more widely understood.




This is also more evidence to the superiority of FFF as a technological path for metal 3D printing because the major hurdle to overcome for scaled adoption of metal 3D printing is economic, not speed or precision. Filament will always be a significantly cheaper medium for metals than powder. This also supports the idea that 3D printed parts don’t have to be perfect from the printer to be useful.  An important point that I believe holds back other large companies from adopting 3D printing successfully. Il meglio è nemico del bene. 



3D printing consultants, Hype and Hysterics

The article starts off with the basics concluding many people think 3D printing will disrupt 3D printing. Then the authors hits us with a growth curve chart of 3D printing. This is the basic setup of the professional amateur and ironically the same method that hypers use to persuade us in the reverse direction. Having the rhetorical style of a child or computer is not my concern so onto the main points:


Our heroes identify three hurdles

The chief constraints are economics, speed, and material science.

and just one paragraph later

it is likely to play an important role in most manufacturing operations over time. Companies that begin experimenting with the technology now will be positioned to utilize it successfully in the future. However, they should view additive manufacturing as part of a suite of advanced manufacturing tools that can improve performance, operational efficiency, quality, and the customer experience.

Which reads like a “if my first statement turns out to be wrong im not really wrong” Whatever the outcome, in 5 years these people will pat themselves on the back for their sagacity.


Economics. Additive-manufacturing materials are prohibitively expensive for most high-volume manufacturing applications, often more than offsetting any benefits that may be derived from any reduced labor that additive manufacturing confers. For example, thermoplastic materials used for traditional injection molding cost $2 to $3 per kilogram, whereas the corresponding photopolymers used in additive manufacturing cost anywhere from $100 to $300 per kilogram, according to a 2014 report by Wohlers Associates.

Industrial printers, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, add to the economic challenge and make the up-front investment for industrial applications substantial.

This is false equivalency or extreme stupidity. Injection molded plastics and photosensitive resins are so different in price because they are totally different materials used in totally different processes and applications. Those $300/kilo resins are used as a replacement for wax in the lost wax casting process. ABS is unsuitable for this application. These ‘photopolymers’ are ‘photopolymers’ for the exact reason that they are not extruded like a ‘thermoplastic’  The equivalence for 3D printing is this $2 to $3 kilo of ABS pellets vs $10 to 20 Kilo filaments and that is to an end consumer. A company serious about integrating 3D printing methods into their workflow will inevitably not being paying retail for their inputs.

As far as the cost of so-called industrial printers; the same can be said for any other industrial process. Industry and capital investment are bedfellows.


Material Availability and Performance. Today, 3-D objects can be printed from a wide range of polymers, paper, ceramics, composites, and alloys that include aluminum, nickel, chromium, and stainless steel. However, many specific alloys and compounds required for industrial applications are not yet available for additive manufacturing.

The durability and consistency of additively manufactured materials pose further concerns. Additively manufactured parts may not perform as well as those made with traditional methods. Titanium alloys used in additive manufacturing, for example, result in lower yields and tensile strengths than titanium alloys used in traditional methods.

This is bundling some truth with factual errors. It is true, 3D printing cannot print with all alloys and compounds. It is not true that 3D printed titanium alloys are weaker than traditional methods.

For example, one study compares the strength of a titanium alloy TiAI6V4

Ti6Al4V is a widely used biomaterial for many medical applications (Biomet, 2009), (Oshida, 2007), (Bronzino, 2006). Experimental results show that the properties of full-dense Ti64 processed on EBM fulfill the corresponding norm for medical implants (ISO, 2010), (ASTM, 2010) and are even superior to casted titanium alloys (Table 1).


Properties Norm (ISO Standards, 2010) Ti64 (EBM) Ti64 (cast) (ASTM, 2010)
Yield strength [Mpa] 760 849 825
Elongation [%] 10 15 10
Area reduction [%] 37 15-25
Young modulus [GPa] 125

So rather than 3D printed titanium alloys having lower yield and tensile strength than traditional methods such as casting, it is significantly stronger is some respects. Some 3D printed materials are weaker than their traditionally manufactured counterparts and there are many applications where you do not want to use a 3D printed part because it is too weak. None of this touches on the topic of integrating mesostructures or generative design into industrial components which would be a great boon to 3D printed parts mechanical performance in industry.


Speed. Industrial 3-D printers are much slower than the traditional high-volume manufacturing machinery. One example is plastic injection molding. According to our analysis, a traditional plastic-injection-molding system can produce nearly 26,000 parts per workday. By contrast, an additive-manufacturing laser-sintering machine can produce only 111 comparable parts per workday. In some cases, such as with aerospace engine parts, it can take two days to print a single object.

Perhaps this is the most opaque topic in consideration of 3D printing. It is interesting to note that both advocates and detractors are wholly polarized on this topic. Using the authors numbers, injection molding is 234.23 times faster than 3d printing. I won’t dispute this if we compare the time it takes to make one unit on an injection molded system and one unit on a 3D printer. But this completely misses the point of even talking about speed, the entire economic structure for the past several hundred years has been pushing towards a manufacturing scheme to leverage cheap labor combined with machine systems. But if I want to make a product and have it in my client’s hand tomorrow, 3D printing is certainly much faster since you bypass pretty much the entire supply chain and go from computer/raw data > local printer > client. The issue with speed is framing. If we talk about manufacturing a product as only the physical process of forming it, injection molding becomes really fast. If we talk about going from nothing to product, 3D printing is faster. So in many ways talking about specific numbers is a way to avoid the actual issue of speed.

Sometimes 3D printing will be faster, sometimes injection molding will be faster. Making a 1:1 comparison and ignoring all other factors is spectacularly feckless.

The rest of the article goes on to pitch their consulting business. So I suppose their attempts at a critical look at 3D printing were designed for posturing since they are so factually weak. However, if we take such middling positions we will be left watching as greater men, companies, and societies reap the first harvest of 3D printing.

One statement is great, one is pathetic

1986: The internet is going to change our lives

2016: The internet is going to change our lives


3D Printed Chess Set

I’ve never been very good at gift giving. Lacking Confucian ostentation and meticulous planning, gifts to my friends and family have always ranged from forgettable to bad. I have fond memories of playing Chess with my dad on a cheap old wooden set. When I saw the Duchamp chess set I was reminded of those times and felt a strange compunction to create something as a memorial to my time playing chess with him, and that old set.


I’m not sure if I will be able to finish it before this Christmas but that has dissuaded me from starting now.


Immediately I knew I wanted something that would be a precious work by itself. Probably using a heavy mixed polymer like those tungsten and stainless steel mixtures but from my experience these have bad layer bonding and are weak to the effects of time. Quality was actually my secondary reason for going with SLA.




The knight seemed like the obvious first piece to print since it is the most challenging. Thinking about it now though, the slender neck and the fatter head might be a issue. The printing was issue free and took roughly 5 hours. However, because this is DLP, I can fit about 2-3 pieces on one plate or if I print at 70 microns, 6-8 pieces. So roughly figure 2 hours per print at 30 microns, times the number total number of pieces, is 64 hours of printing time at 30 microns. Or around 10 hours of total printing time at 70 microns. I’ll decide after I get the first casting back.



It turned out well. I’m unsure how the lowish resolution of the model will turn out once it is casted. Looking at it in resin, it give a feeling of hand beaten copper. The larger base that you see on the bottom of the model is foundation support added during the slicing to help it stick to the plate. This might have been a stupid thing as it will require me to shave it off by hand along the transversal. For the next parts I will defiantly switch to point supports.

As for materials choice, Silver for white is a defiant as the characteristic shine matches white perfectly and platinum is too luxurious. I’m leaning towards brass for black but will have a talk with the caster and discuss some alloys that might be a better fit.

The next question will be if I print all the pieces or print one of each and create silicone molds and use wax injection for the molds then finally wax for the casting. The upside of going mold to wax to cast is less work for me. I don’t think, for this volume, that it will actually be faster because in the time it would take to make one mold I could have already printed half the total set. The upside of printing is that I control the process and it will probably be cheaper… I better fire up the printer.