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Japanese additive manufacturing is rising

A look at some of the most interesting AM companies bridging manufacturing and digital culture in the Land of the Rising Sun

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For some reason—maybe due in part to a distorted perception caused by the language barrier—Japanese companies have never seemed to truly embrace additive manufacturing as a production option. That may now be changing for good. The Japanese industry has some of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world, as well as some giant materials manufacturers and hundreds of aerospace companies. The fact that one of these companies, IHI Aerospace, stated that “We are now strongly promoting the use of 3D printers [for the manufacturing of a 22N rocket thruster utilizing hydrazine]” is what prompted us to connect some dots. Until recently all these industries did not seem to see Japanese additive manufacturing companies as capable of offering truly practical production solutions. Companies like Solize, 3DCeram, IHI, Mitsubishi and nTopology are proving otherwise.

By AM we mean in particular some of the more “traditional” AM technologies, such as resin-vat- and powder-bed-based processes, those where the benefits of geometry are clearest and that can offer the most advantage in short batch manufacturing of highly complex, DfAM parts. The overall impression has always been that Japanese companies—often run by older generations traditionally-minded executives—would not be willing to bet on AM for the future of manufacturing until it could be a safe enough bet.

Has that time really come? If it has, it’s not that clear-cut yet. The Nikkei estimates the Japanese 3D printing market compound annual growth rate (CAGR) to be 9.1% between 2017 and 2022, when the market is expected to be worth about $430 million. This is, however, just a tiny percentage (0.1%) of the overall Japanese manufacturing industry, which generates about $400 billion yearly.

First, let’s be clear. Japan was and still is one of the first adopters of AM for prototyping purposes. Italian stereolithography hardware manufacturer DWS actually began commercializing its first machines in Japan in the 1990s. To this day, the country remains one of its primary markets, with entertainment and toy industry giants such as Namco-Bandai as early customers. We also know that Stratasys has sold a number of machines and services to Nissan for prototyping and tooling. In fact, thanks to Autodesk’s APAC Product Specialist Peter Rogers, we now know that 3D printing has been alive and well in Japan, just like elsewhere, with companies such as Solize Corporation providing rapid prototyping, tooling and design services with multiple industrial 3D Systems machines. Now the company – just like in many other countries around the world – has expanded its range of machines to include HP MJF hardware for production runs. Autodesk – of course – has a strong presence there as well.

Solize - japanese additive manufacturing - japanese companies

In addition, two of the largest DED hardware manufacturers in the world, DMG Mori (offering laser metal deposition and hybrid LMD) and Mazak (LMD and WAAM), are Japanese companies. However, DED technologies are a derivation of subtractive machine tools and—while they do provide an entry point into AM—they represent a more conservative approach in terms of part geometry. Recently DMG Mori moved increasingly closer to the AM world by partnering with Siemens’ AM division and by acquiring Realizer, one of the first German manufacturers of metal PBF systems (including for precious metals). That’s another indication that something is moving in the right direction.

DMG Mori’s best selling LASERTEC 65 DED and Hybrid DED system.

Two more Japanese machine tool firms, Matsuura first and, more recently, Sodick, event went as far as introducing a hybrid metal PBF technology, the only companies in the world to do so. Hybrid metal PBF is a very difficult process to implement as it requires interrupting the already delicate PBF process to subtractively finish the part during the build. The idea is that these types of machines can be used almost exclusively to produce tools, as it would be extremely challenging to certify the quality and repeatability of a final part undergoing such a complex process. So, again, while they do use a powder bed approach for complex geometry, these machines cannot be considered true direct production solutions.

For many years, it almost seemed as if the only company to do additive manufacturing in Japan was Matsuura. The consumer AM craze only marginally touched Japan, with a number of FabLabs emerging and online AM service provider Kabuku attempting to offer an alternative to the emerging Shapeways, iMaterialise and Sculpteo of the West but the project never really took off.

Testing the AM waters

More recently, certain new initiatives and companies seemed to indicate that Japanese companies were more seriously looking at AM for manufacturing. Not every one of them met with success. Ricoh was the first to venture into the industrial polymer SLS hardware business but its efforts have met with some difficulties in establishing this area of business globally.

A ceramic part 3D printed with RICOH’s AM technology.

The company then began looking into metal binder jetting materials (mainly aluminum) and hardware but these projects remain very much developmental at this time. Another Japanese printing technology giant and early 3D printing patent holder, Canon, announced plans to enter the market with internally developed 3D printing hardware—first with a polymer and subsequently with a ceramic 3D printing technology—but has not yet done so (although the company distributes 3D Systems hardware via its UK subsidiary). Perhaps one of the most interesting projects undertaken by Canon in the 3D printing area just emerged recently through it fully owned subsidiary Canon Ecology Industry as the company—which specializes in recycling and upcycling used Canon 2D printing equipment such as toner cartridges and copier parts—began producing PC-ABS and HIPS filament with these parts. This also remains, however, a fascinating project still limited in scope at this time.

The TADA EZ300 EBM 3D printer.

The Mitsubishi group also seems constantly on the verge of seriously entering the AM market. The conglomerate launched several different initiatives into AM however some of these remain experimental. Most of the Mitsubishi group of companies’ activities in AM are carried out through Mitsubishi Chemical with a focus on AM materials. The company first acquired major filament manufacturer Dutch Filaments in 2018, and then launched a series of ventures aimed at developing both the large format extrusion and photopolymer resin materials markets.

Another company in the group, Mitsubishi Electric, is focusing on AM hardware, mainly by developing a new “dot-forming” metal 3D printing technology, and—although it took a ridiculous amount of research to find it—by introducing into the market the first EBM system developed in Japan by its fully owned-company TADA Electric. Co. Japan’s first Electron Beam metal 3D Printer, the EZ300, is also one of the very first real competitor’s to GE Arcam’s current segment dominance.  According to TADA, it provides an industry-leading modeling speed of 250cc/h* and a proprietary rod-shaped cathode producing the industry’s longest heating time of 1,000 hours.

Japanese companies - Japanese Additive Manufacturing
3DCERAM’s ceramic AM production line.

One of the most significant initiatives into AM was carried out by the Sinto Group, the world’s largest manufacturer of foundry equipment, when it acquired French ceramic stereolithography hardware manufacturer 3D Ceram. Combining the French firm’s advanced capabilities for innovation with the Japanese group’s financial power is enabling a significant scaling up of activities within the ceramic AM market (although it is not yet fully clear how much of that is relative to the Japanese market).

The new wave of AM

Now a new wave of AM seems to be emerging. At least two AM shows now take place in Japan yearly: TCT Japan in Tokyo and Additive Manufacturing Expo in Osaka. Although very few Japan-based AM hardware or AM materials manufacturers are listed among exhibitors, these shows are offering a window for distributors or divisions of foreign AM companies to target the Japanese industrial firms attending the larger manufacturing fairs surrounding both events.

3dpbm‘s AM company index only lists a few Japan-based AM service providers (again this may be due in part to the language and cultural barrier). One is JAMPT, a service providing metal AM services with a battery of 7 machines (as of 2019) including EBM technology. Another is PRISMADD Japan, which is a joint venture between Yamaichi Special Steel (that recently became a distributor of nTopology software in Japan) and the PRISMADD Group. In fact, other newly signed distribution deals are also an indicator that something is moving.

Japanese companies - Japanese Additive Manufacturing
nTopology is making a big push for the Japanese market.

US-based generative design software company nTopology recently signed another distribution deal for Japan with NTT DATA’s new XAM venture. XAM represents a significant investment for the large NTT Data group towards building the AM market in Japan by, among other things, selling AM hardware from EOS and metal AM powders from Alloyed.

Yet another interesting and recently signed distribution deal saw AM post-processing experts PostProcess Technologies sign its first distribution deal in Japan with K. K. Irisu (also a distributor of high-temperature filament extrusion hardware from Italian manufacturer Roboze)Another high-temperature filament extrusion system manufacturer, Canada’s AON3D, is now distributed in Japan by 3D Printing Corporation. The company driven by CEO Alexander De Vore, is the prototype of the modern 3D printing firm, offering DfAM consultancy, machine sales (with Markforged alongside AON3D) and manufacturing services (including robotic extrusion of CFRP materials).

The Japanese market’s apparent growing appetite for AM also attracted another Italian firm, the large Italian service provider Beam IT, that opened a new commercial agency to target the energy, motorsport, aviation, space and defense sectors in the country. Yet another AM company, a young and rapidly growing hardware manufacturer, Velo 3D, signed a distribution deal with Tayo Nippon Sanso Corporation, which is part of the Mitsubishi Group. The Velo3D systems, along with other systems, is now installed in the Advanced AM Room research center that Tayo Nippon Sanso just opened as a core hub for the research and development of AM technologies.

Japanese companies - Japanese Additive Manufacturing

Beyond the AM horizon

It doesn’t end here: the Japanese market is now opening up to some fringe areas of 3D printing as well. In fact, a Japanese firm called Cyfuse Biomedical is a pioneer in the bioprinting sector leveraging an innovative “Micro Needle Array“ Technology that enables 3D tissue fabrication using cell and spheroids only. Swedish firm CELLINK, also a bioprinting hardware manufacturer, opened its Japanese office at Kyoto University.

More recently, Japanese construction company Aizawa Concrete Corp. began offering advanced construction 3D printing services leveraging CyBe’s robotic extrusion technology. Whilst in the field of advanced continuous composites additive manufacturing, sector pioneer Arevo Labs is partnering with ACG Inc. to bring its MaaS business to Japan.

Sanitation room 3D printed by Aizawa for the Indian market, using CyBe technology.

In electronics 3D printing, CMK Corporation, one of Japan’s largest manufacturers of printed circuit boards (PCBs), recently acquired a Dragonfly 3D printer from segment leader Nano Dimension. Also, nano 3D printer hardware manufacturer Nanoscribe installed its first system in Japan at KEIO University.

Looking farther down the line, a company called Open Meals is even considering the idea of bioprinting fish cells to produce true “8-bit sushi”. Perhaps even more “peculiar” but at the same time much more real in terms of commercialization, are the 3D printed smart dolls created by popular blogger Danny Choo. He used 3D printing to create the business from scratch and is now meeting with much larger demand worldwide. His dolls are clearly reminiscent of cartoon characters from Japanese digital culture and his company’s growth is an indication of a successful implementation of 3D printing in production.

As manufacturing, through 3D printing, finally and fully embraces digital culture, Japanese companies will undoubtedly continue to rise… And shine.

*This article was updated on December 9th 2020 to include 3D Printing Corporation and Solize.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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