Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

3D printing in India: Inflection point?

As corporate India opens to the new technology, prospects for 3D printing are growing quite fast in the country

New Delhi: Twenty-six-year-old Amitt Sharma, who runs an ad-tech firm in New Delhi, uses a 3D printer. Having won the NASA Space Apps Challenge in Delhi three years ago, he has since been working on various 3D printing projects as a hobby.

Sharma falls in the category of the so-called makers (part of the Do It Yourself (DIY) culture). Makers play a significant role in helping the growth of 3D printers. However, the maker space in India largely comprises of young entrepreneurs who don’t always have the means to buy 3D printers. Sharma, for instance, spent about $600 some years ago to build his 3D printer based on the Prusa i3—part of the RepRap (Replicating Rapid Prototyper) and the world’s most-used 3D printer .

He points out, though, that there are online communities that allow makers to skip the cost of buying their own 3D printers by inviting others to share 3D printers.

Push needed: There are some start-ups, however, that would need industrial grade printers that can cost upwards of 1 lakh and even run into crores. It’s in such cases that incubators like Maker Village come handy. “3D printing is the ‘in thing’ as far as we’re concerned," says Prasad Balakrishnan, chief executive officer (CEO) and founder of Maker Village—a joint initiative between the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala, Kerala Startup Mission and Kerala government. Balakrishnan said Maker Village already has five 3D printers which it allows start-ups to use. It plans to acquire five more in the next few months, to meet the growing demand.

Industry will drive growth and scale: On the industrial side, however, the prospects for 3D printing are growing quite fast. Swapnil Sansare, CEO of Divide by Zero Technologies, a leading 3D printer maker in India, says his company has seen nearly 500% growth in the five years of its existence. According to Sansare, 3D printing is being used by artists, healthcare and automotive companies, among others. He added that the small SMEs in places like Rajkot have adopted 3D printing “quite well".

One of the main drivers is the automobile industry. Tata Motors Ltd has been using 3D printing for building prototypes in its research and development facility in Pune. Sansare has also seen growth in competition in the last five years, especially in the last three, he said.

The market, though, does face challenges, notes Guruprasad Rao, director of Imaginarium (India) Pvt. Ltd—the largest rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing company. Cost, of course, is one of these. But according to Rao, there also needs to be a change in the mindset of industry leaders. “It’s a Catch 22 situation right now. It (the 3D printer market) has potential, but the industry is very conservative. They’re very risk-averse," he rued.

After 100 years of conventional manufacturing, said Rao, it’s difficult to show the value addition 3D printing brings. “Because of inherent strengths and weaknesses it had, the overall value-add was not realised," he said. “There is no way 3D printing can solve your problem if you’re looking at a conventional design thinking." Rao, though, did acknowledge that industries like aerospace and space have recognised the value 3D printing technology can bring to them.

“Historically, 3D printing has largely been focused on prototyping because it didn’t have the ability to produce parts at scale, at low cost," said Sumeer Chandra, managing director of HP India.

Chandra says HP’s goal is to have a go at the $12 trillion manufacturing market, which its solutions can cater to.

Similarly, Raj Kumar Rishi, managing director of Xerox India, expects India to rub shoulders with the rest of the world in the adoption of 3D printing. He concluded, “We are not up there with the world right now. However, as more innovation happens and cost efficiency improves, India should catch up very fast."

What is 3D printing?

3D printing belongs to a class of techniques known as additive manufacturing, or building objects layer by layer.

The concept of 4D printing allows materials to “self-assemble" into 3D structures.

3D printing, which has been around for over 30 years, is now used not only to make jewellery and toothbrushes, but also football boots, racing-car parts, food products, guns, human organs, houses, aircraft parts and even the controversial 3D-printed guns.

3D printing in India

Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Genesis Foundation: A 3D-printed heart was used to operate on an 11-year-old girl with congenital heart defects. The heart allowed doctors to forego the 2D stage, including X-Rays and MRIs.

Maruti Suzuki: Uses 3D printing to test its prototypes for design, engineering, production and mass production.

Mellora: This online jewellery brand uses 3D printing to make jewellery for millennials.

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